In 1907, at the age of 43, Leo Baekeland while experimenting with phenol and formaldehyde struck a new level of alchemy. He had invented the first fully synthetic resin, which went to become the world’s first commercially successful version of plastic. Named after its inventor, it was called Bakelite.
We need to rewind a little.
Leo Baekeland, a Belgian, is a story of rags to riches. He was born in a family where his father was a cobbler and his mother worked as a domestic help. It was his mother who encouraged Leo to study in a night school and eventually get a scholarship to Ghent University — getting a PhD in chemistry at the age of 20.
Bakelite plastic swept across the developed world in the first quarter of the 20th century, earning wealth and fame for Leo. In fact, in 1924, when Time magazine put his face on its cover, it didn’t feel the need to mention his name. It just carried the words: “It will not burn. It will not melt.” Plastic became the basis of modern development and a household commodity.
In 2011, when author Susan Freinkel wrote Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, she went about counting the number of articles we touch everyday as we go about our daily lives. She found out that on an average, she touched 196 articles made of plastic in a day and only 102 were not made of plastic. Two-third of what an average human touches, is made of some form of plastic – from light switches, buckets, toothbrushes, paste tubes and so on. The world makes so much plastic that the sector consumes about 8 per cent of the global oil production. As much as 50 per cent of this goes as raw material into making plastic itself, and 50 per cent goes into generating the energy for the processes involved.
So when plastic began to be manufactured, it was for the first time that humans were not limited by the constraints of nature. Nature supplied us with materials like metal, wood, bone, tusk and horn, but now humans had developed the ability to manufacture new materials. One needs to admit: plastic is convenient — it is cheap, it can be given many shapes with ease, and most forms of it are poor conductors of electricity.
But this magic material also has a huge flipside. What nature gives, nature knows how to absorb back and recycle — but plastic did not fall in that category.
They take too long to decompose naturally. Plastic items can take over 1,000 years to decompose in landfills. The plastic bottles that store-packaged drinking water, take over 450 years while the polythene bags which we use every other day takes about 10 to 1,000 years to decompose. Another worrisome aspect of these plastics is called the minute particulate plastics or micro-plastics. When these plastics are exposed to ultraviolet rays in the presence of water, these plastics can degrade into tiny particles. These particles then can be ingested by simpler life forms like bacteria and enter the food chain. This is why humans across the globe are consuming about 5 grams (same as the weight of a credit card) of plastics every week.
Like much of the world, India too is struggling to deal with the ever growing quantities of the plastic waste, given the universal problem it has become. India generates about 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste per day. The four metro cities had a disproportionately larger share in the overall plastic waste – with the four metros generating 40 per cent of the total plastic waste from the top 60 cities of India. On an average, an Indian consumes about 11 kg of plastic every year, which still is minuscule compared to an average American at about 109 kg a year.
It should also be noted that every day, about 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste remains uncollected in India. This uncollected plastic waste eventually lands up in the oceans and seas, or piles up on our land masses. According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the amount of plastic in seas and oceans across the world will weigh more than the fishes in them by 2050.
We are at a crossroad.
Plastic is well entrenched into our growth and development as a material, but at the same time, it is creating an extraordinary ecological challenge. The government recently has shown strong commitment to ban single-use plastic including “bags, cups, plates, small bottles and straws”. The people seem to be in support.
Alternatives to the plastic bag
While plastic ban is eminent, there is also a need to find a well-laid-out plan to find the alternatives to it. Plastic is everywhere and seems to be a very visible culprit. But what about the replacements?
In 2018, the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food came out with a report on “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Carrier Bags”. The report highlighted that the general assumption regarding the alternatives to plastic bag are inherently eco-friendly is misplaced. Paper and cloth bags also come at a cost to the environment — consuming wood, water, air and land space, and creating acidification, radiation and mineralisation. The report concluded that for the same impact across identified parameters as compared to a plastic bag, a paper bag should be reused 43 times and a cloth bag — 7,100 times!
One has to look at the impact and cost of all such alternatives. We do not want to see a time in a decade when there is a similar debate about paper bags causing deforestation or cloth bags causing massive amounts of chemicals being released into water in their manufacturing.
Can investing in technology be the real game changer?
The non-linear solution in this case would be technology.
In 2016, a team of Japanese scientists isolated a microorganism, Ideonella sakaiensis, which is a bacterium capable of breaking down and consuming plastic — polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — as its sole carbon and energy source. This bacterium produces the enzyme PETase, which is capable of digesting PET plastics, often used in making bottles, cups, polyester and many electrical fittings. In 2018, another team from University of Portsmouth (USA) artificially created the same enzyme in a laboratory.
We are well on our way to ‘digest’ plastic in a matter of few weeks from the current figure of hundreds of years.
Artificial Intelligence in recycling
A large proportion of the plastic we use on a daily basis is actually recyclable. But the biggest difficulty of recycling is segregation. Even the plastic label on a plastic bottle needs to be separated for recycling to happen properly.
It is hard to separate types of plastic using machines as they are non-magnetic and there are over 50 types of plastics with overlapping densities over a very narrow band (hence centrifuges are ineffective). So much of the segregation is done visually, mostly by humans.
Now this is changing with AI. For instance, Clarke, an AI-based robot, is able to visually identify articles, separating milk bags, bottles and other common articles from each other at a speed of one article a second.
Ecobricks, plastic roads and plastic oils
Countries across the world are experimenting with the idea of building small infrastructure using recycled plastic. This is a form of ‘upcycling’ – or augmenting the intended use of plastic. Ecobricks are made of used plastic bottles and can be used to make furniture, walls and spaces. Similarly, used plastic can be used to build roads; India alone is planning 1,00,000 kilometres of plastic roads.
Then plastic can be converted into fuel or plastic oils. A UK-based company has developed oil called ‘Plaxx’ from plastic. For every 7,000 tonnes of plastic, about 5,200 tonnes of oil can be manufactured. Plaxx can be used by petrochemical companies and ship engines. The company claims that each machine pays for itself within three years.
A way forward
Plastic ban will have a significant impact on not just the plastic industry, but also the overall industrial scenario as plastic is allied to nearly all industries. While there is little doubt over the need to contain the environmental impact of plastics, there is also a need to have a long-term path for replacement of plastic or augmentation of the current recycling or upcycling process.