International Plastic Bag Free Day was celebrated on July 3 to raise awareness about the harmful impact of plastic on the environment. Plastic bags may seem like a grocery shopping convenience, but they also put a huge strain on the environment.
It can take up to 600 years for plastic bags to get disintegrated, so they make up a large portion of what stays in our landfills and pollutes our waterways. International Plastic Bag Free Day looks for safer alternatives to demonstrate that a world without the use of so much plastic is possible.
It is part of the Break Free from Plastic Movement, which began in September 2016, and has been joined by nearly 1,500 different organizations. The movement is looking for answers to the plastic pollution crisis, to make the planet safe for humans, the environment and wildlife.
For urban solid waste, plastic bags have become major items in the litter system. This has resulted in many harmful environmental effects including animal choking, pollution, blockage of channels, rivers and streams, and landscape disfigurement.
Once I was appointed as an invigilator for the BEd examinations. The students had to appear in the Environmental Education Paper. Few in-service teachers working in the reputed schools of the valley were also appearing in the examinations.
The question paper reflected the following question: “Write about harmful effects of using plastic bags on the environment. Suggest alternatives to the usage of plastic bags.” These in-service teachers just wrote four or five lines to this question. I found them in a state of mental inertia: physically they were in the examination hall but mentally they were not there.
They could not stretch their thought process beyond a limit. Now think about the small children who are under the custody of these burn-out teachers. How do you expect those children develop ideational fluency, elaboration and originality in their thought process which are the three keys of creativity?
I tried to work out the reasons for this dismal situation and came to the conclusion that our teachers are not in the habit of reading newspapers, magazines and current awareness journals to remain updated. Generally our teachers do not encourage our students to write articles on environmental related issues in school magazines.
In one of our studies we had conducted a review of the school magazines and found very few articles published by teachers and students related to environment . Significant number of these articles were written out of the contextual frame of the valley in which they live.
During our internship I assigned a group of pupil teachers to construct an Environmental Awareness Test and got it administered on school students; after results were analyzed and interpreted the level of environmental awareness was found low which is a matter of concern. But there are exceptions.
During a visit to one of the schools I found one of the students Adil who had prepared a beautiful scrap book and pasted environment related newspaper cuttings on it . His eco-oriented teacher arranged various environment related co-curricular activities for his students. Once Adil went to picnic along with his family. There was lot of garbage littered in the picnic spot; everyone was busy enjoying while Adil was busy in collecting garbage and properly disposing it into the dustbins.
Charity begins from home. During one Friday in 2009 I went to the Hazratbal market to buy some vegetables and fruit. As per usual practice the street vendors put these vegetables and fruit in the polythene bags. I also purchased one cloth bag for rupees twenty five. Back to my department in distance education a son of my then Director Prof Shafiqa Parveen who was perhaps reading in class 7th told me, “Sir why do not you use cloth bag instead of polythene bag”.
He took a book from his bag and showed me a chapter which encouraged use of cloth bags for shopping. It was a prick on my conscience. Since 2009 whenever I go to market or visit Friday market at Hazratbal I carry this cloth bag. Long back there was a practice in our Directorate of Distance Education we used to pack the study material of students in a cloth bag which had a screen printed quotation “Say No to Polythene bags”. Later students used these bags for other home based activities.
In the downtown area of Srinagar I have observed people throwing plastic bags in open drains and dumping on one side of the roads. Dogs and cows often confuse these plastic bags for food and consume them, therefore blocking their digestive processes. There is a frequent drain blockage in downtown Srinagar due to these plastic bags.
I have observed shop keepers using plastic bags indiscriminately without any fear of being fined. During the early morning walk you will observe heaps of plastic bags scattered in front of closed shops. Even the dates and holy water are packed in small plastic bags which is not good for environment.
There are examples where large endangered tortoises were found to have suffocated because of the swallowing of plastic bags combined with seaweed. Trapped plastic bags along coastlines produce an environmental challenge that has harmful effects on tourism industry. Trapped shoreline plastic along the banks of river Jhelum and under bridges has a negative effect on fishing, and aquaculture.
I observed in one of the big restaurants in Srinagar that they use heat resistant plastics in ovens. Good number of college students visited that restaurant, and complained of erratic digestive processes. I shared the following information with these students.
Studies have shown that meals heated in plastic bags result in the development of ulcers, asthma, obesity, and certain cancers. This is attributed to the fact that plastic bags have some chemicals that mix with the meal when heated. One of these chemicals is Bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA helps to make plastic more flexible and durable.
While it makes plastic more useful for everyday use, this chemical contributes to serious health hazards , especially when it comes in contact with food. Studies on animals have shown that high doses of BPA have the potential to damage reproductive development and functions.
Studies have also shown that people who have excessive amounts of BPA in their body system are more susceptible to various serious health hazards such as diabetes, liver toxicity, and heart disease.
This chemical can also have harmful effects on the brain. We have seen that Bisphenol-A is a chemical compound that is used in the manufacture of plastic bags. This chemical is found in plastic food cans and water bottles.
When the chemical bonds weaken, BPA is released and normally seeps into your food and water. Ingredients of plastic bags include a plethora of neurotoxic, carcinogenic, and hormone-disruptive chemicals. Some of these chemicals are also released as by-products of plastic production. When released, they eventually end up in our ecosystem through the land, water, and air pollution.
According to the World Health Organization, when pregnant women are exposed to high concentrations of Phthalates and BPA, which are chemical compounds, found in plastic, they may give birth to a child with lung disorder. These children may also be at high risk of developing asthma later in life.
Certain chemicals used in the manufacturing of plastic bags, especially BPA interferes with hormonal balance in women and affect reproduction. According to a study by the World Health Organization, men who are often in contact with phthalates and BPA have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer.
These chemicals can also weaken their reproductive health. The plastic bags in the dumpsite will normally release chemicals that seep into the ground, ending into the groundwater reservoirs. Then, the harmful effects of plastics would be passed through the ground to our bodies through the plants we consume and the water we drink.
Pollution from plastic materials, such as plastic bags, affects the natural order of feeding. This is because its injurious effects do not spare any animal or plant in the food chain, ranging from large terrestrial animals to microscopic plankton. Moreover, studies have linked BPA to breast cancer in animals. This chemical has also been associated with thyroid issues and neurologic disorders in humans.
There is a need to minimize our plastic use. This means changing our everyday habits, not using plastic when there is a good alternative and only using plastic when it is strictly necessary. Education is another key tool for behavioral modification; educating people about the environmental and health effects of using plastic bags.
We need to raise awareness in communities about poor waste disposal activities. Other actions that can be taken to limit the impact of plastic bags on the environment include taking part in neighborhood clean-up efforts, voluntarily recycling household waste, avoiding littering and illegal dumping of plastic shopping bags, using eco-friendly materials as an alternative and adopting legislation which would ban the use of plastic bags.
Dr Showkat Rashid Wani, Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.