There are good reasons for that, too. Plastic materials are light, strong, durable, flexible, and cheap. Therefore, it is high in demand in almost every industry – be it construction, transportation, packaging, or IT. With growing population and economy of nations, more people are demanding an increasing number of commodities to meet their daily needs. This is raising the number of plastic materials consumed around the world.
However, a huge portion of the plastic products is not recycled after use. Because of this inefficiency in waste management, the environment as well as human and animal health is exposed to grave risks.
“The most obvious strengths of plastic are also its worst weaknesses. On the positive side, plastic is very useful because it is durable, cheap, and widely available. What can you not make out of it – from a piece of thread to a house? On the negative side, when left out in the environment it remains there for a very long time as it is not easily degradable. It’s also hard to control the use and waste management of plastic,” said Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah, Programme Coordinator at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh.
Plastic production around the world started rising meteorically since the 1950s, especially because of the wide variety of uses and rising demands. A study by a team of researchers from University of California, Santa Barbara, University of Georgia, and Sea Education Association published last year revealed that till date, 8,300 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic have been produced. It also states that approximately 6,300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated as of 2015, only around 9% of which had been recycled and 12% incinerated. The remaining 79% was accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment.
If the current production and waste management trends continue, the report predicts that by 2050, the landfills and natural environment will contain roughly 12,000 metric tons of plastic waste. Another research published in 2015 estimated that every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean. The gargantuan amount of plastic in the oceans severely harms birds, marine animals, and fish. Moreover, plastic takes over 400 years to degrade, which means that all the plastic ever dumped that has not been recycled or incinerated, remain in the same form.
The main causes of the environmental and health risks are ineffective recycling mechanisms of used plastic materials. According to plastic makers in Bangladesh, per capita plastic consumption in the country is six to seven kgs per year. This could rise five fold to 30kgs per year by 2030. It’s not surprising, given the consistent economic growth of the nation. The number is significantly lower than developed nations like the US and Singapore, though, where the annual per capita consumption is over 100kgs.
If the current production and waste management trends continue, the report predicts that by 2050, the landfills and natural environment will contain roughly 12,000 metric tons of plastic waste
Prof Dr Md Ehteshamul Hoque, the Head of Radiation Oncology at Anwer Khan Modern Medical College Hospital, said that a lot of medical devices currently in use are made of plastic. Some of the implants used in gall bladder or heart operations are plastic devices. Although research has revealed that the plastic implants can cause a cancer called mesothelioma in animals, no evidence of cancer caused by plastic devices has has been found in humans yet.
The growing plastic industry in Bangladesh employs hundreds of thousands of people. As the industry grows, so does the number of people employed. Dr Hoque warns of the vulnerability of the workers to different types of cancer because of exposure to different types of colour, polyethelene etc, which could act as carcinogens (any substance that promotes the formation of cancer). The workers are also prone to risks of skin and respiratory diseases. He recommends regular medical check up facilities for workers set up by employers in this case. Finally, he recommends judicious use of plastic products as life without plastic is almost impossible in the modern world.
The benefits of plastic make its importance undeniable, but it also makes the need to recycle plastic effectively equally important, if not more. Only by putting in effect the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – can the environment and public health be saved from the risks of plastic waste. For that, the government and the private sector must work in collaboration, and plastic users need to be more responsible regarding the use and waste of plastic.