The Plastic Age is going strong. Plastic rules our lives and how! It’s durable, does not perish, and you don’t need to cut trees to make it. And despite being much frowned upon and debated, plastic has a strong presence in almost every nook of our lives. So deep is the plastic connection that we use the term to refer to anything fake — plastic smile, plastic snow, plastic surgery!
Imagine, if the Titanic were made of plastic, it may never have sunk. So while we battle plastic bags choking our drains, we just can’t imagine life without the ever-present plastic which has invaded every sphere of our existence, from the humble safety pins to aeroplane parts, carry bags to cushion filling, anything money can buy to the very card that we call money! That shiny new toy in plastic comes for a song, that.
And we have pop songs eulogising plastic and having even li’l ones believe that it’s the best thing to happen — “I’m a Barbie girl, in my Barbie world/ Wrapped in plastic, it’s fantastic…” At the time of the teen pregnancy boom in the USA, high school teens were given plastic babies, the size of real babies, which wailed when hungry or their diapers were soiled (remote-controlled, of course). This was done to give them an idea of the responsibility of raising a real child. And how we cringed at the thought of a plastic baby being treated as a real one!
Yet, we continue to buy our children colourful plastic dolls and happily watch them play house with their plastic kitchen set. “Urbanites have stopped leading real lives, everything around us seems so ‘plasticky’. So why buy a stoic wooden toy when the same one in plastic can light up a young face instantly? We all know wood is superior to plastic, but can you imagine a cupboard full of wooden toys? That would be a faux pas in urban homes,” says Annie Thomas, a home-maker in Bengaluru. All that argument is okay, but really, it takes 100 years for a single bottle of plastic to decompose.
Now imagine how long it will take Mother Nature to break down all that plastic we toss out. Some innovators have come up with solutions — they’re using it to make roads, as one enterprising group of people has shown in Bengaluru. K. K. Ahmed, managing director of KK Plastic Waste Management, Bengaluru, was one of the brains behind this unique experiment. “About a decade ago, people started lobbying against plastic. Since we are essentially manufacturers of plastic bags, we decided to recycle plastic. We knew that tar was one of the end products of plastic.
So we set up a lab and started by mixing asphalt and plastic. When that didn’t yield good results, we mixed plastic with bitumen and the two blended beautifully. We filled up a few potholes in the city and found it to be a success,” says Ahmed. The company approached Bangalore University’s Road Research Centre, which accepted this experiment for research work. After two years, it was certified as one of the best ways of recycling plastic with no hazard and the company won a contract for over 500 km of road length in Bengaluru. Other states like Delhi and Maharashtra have now evinced interest in this technology.
What better way to recycle all that plastic! Vimal Kedia, managing director of Manjushree Technopack, Bengaluru, has a ‘heritage museum of packaging’ in his factory which stocks various stages of packaging over the years. “Plastic is unavoidable today. It is a versatile material that lends itself to many uses. Virgin plastic used in packaging these days has oxygen and moisture barriers, is foodgrade and industry-compliant,” he says. The turnaround in favour of plastic happened not just because of colourful and durable household products, but also because plastic as an accessory became fashionable.
Forget those raincoats and gumboots, plastic ornaments have started gaining favor. Says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, New Delhi, “All that plastic we use has to go somewhere. And if we can use it in fashion, it is a good thing. Plastic is as much a matter of fashion as it is about being eco-friendly. It is an international trend to use plastic accessories. There are hairbands, bags, belts and jewellery — it is the material for the younger generation. And OUR generation values the look of a product — the fashion quotient — as much as the affordability. On the argument about how harmful plastic is to the earth, Sunil says, “I think plastic is the best recyclable material. There are several people who do their bit to recycle and re-use plastic for many uses. Any product is harmful if it’s not disposed off properly after use. So too with plastic,” says Sunil. When the voices against plastic grow louder, the question arises — what is the alternative? Cloth and paper bags serve the purpose but only to an extent. Will your child switch to a steel water-bottle and tiffin-box or will the PEOPLE give up her Tupperware set? Most of us on the older side of 35 have seen less plastic around us. Our parents had wooden toys, not fancy plastic ones like us. We always saw our parents bring home things wrapped in plastic bags. They were either carted around in wooden packaging or in cloth bags. But today, the same methods will mean cutting down more trees. If you take away plastic, the only thing most of the will miss is their credit card,” says Mumbai-based Alka Nayar, a corporate trainer, consultant and mother of an eight-year-old. Parents can teach children to minimise the use of plastic. It all bring down to the choices we make at home. But it will be difficult to let go of plastic because of its high utility value and the impact it has on our lives,” says Alka. Sunil Kumar is a young environmentalist. The ill-effects of plastic notwithstanding, Sunil outlines a few reasons why people prefer plastic: “It is dirt cheap; you can give plastic containers to children to play without worrying about splinters or breakage; fake plastic flowers make for great interiors display and you can give them to several girlfriends!
You can use a plastic sheet to roll out puran polis and if you are stuck in the rain, all you need is a plastic cover over your head! On a serious note, to go plastic has become a symbol of progress. This is the day of plastics (composites). Real aircrafts are now made of composites to lighten their weight. This is also the age of plastic cars. News junkies may soon have to get used to plastic newspapers, which are in the offing! ” So while the debate about the ill-effects of plastic continues, modern lifestyle stays happy in its shiny plastic world.
How to recognise & pick virgin plastic The story of how we came to use foodgrade plastic is quite interesting. At a time when the cola wars were hotting up in the USA in the 1970s, the cola manufacturers decided to increase the capacity from 300ml and 500ml to one litre bottles. However, the US food administration authorites banned them from doing so, on the grounds that if a one-litre glass bottle filled with cola were to drop on the ground, it would create damage equal to a small bomb because of the lethal combination of cola ingredients and glass splinters!
Not to be outdone, the cola giants approached Dupont company, which conducted extensive research and trials on plastic to make it foodgrade — which means it had to be moisture and oxygen proof. The rest is history, as this opened up many vistas for the packaging industry to use plastic not only for food products, but also industrial products and chemicals. In spite of all the arguments against excessive use of plastic, if you still must bring plasticware home, here are a few pointers on how to ick virgin plastic material as opposed to low-grade, recycled plastic: * Opt for firm plastic products that have been manufactured by reliable, known brands. * Plastic goods that are thick and come in bright colours, or are transparent, are made from virgin plastic. * Dark colours with dull finishes do not exist in high quality plastic; they are a surefire giveaway that the plastic used is recycled not once but several times over. * Plastic that comes cheap is recycled. If the product is made from high grade plastic, it will come at a premium price compared to other cheaper variants.