Dr Govind Singh
The polythene bag is perhaps the most polluting discovery of the previous century. First created by accident in 1933 in England, and further developed (and patented) by the Swedish company Celloplast in 1965, polythene bags started replacing most other types of shopping bags by the 1980s. But in 1997, after making another chance discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world became aware of the deadly waste plastic mess that we have now created for ourselves. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in Northern Pacific Ocean and is a large collection of marine debris. Most of this marine debris comprises polythene, both intact as well as broken down into tiny pieces. This has become one of the greatest threat to marine animals, most notably to the sea turtles which mistakenly eat polythene bags thinking they are jellyfish.
Polythene is a non-biodegradable substance and it does not disintegrate or degrade itself in nature. Once created, it remains around us at all times. Once discarded, it often comes back to us in ugly and unhealthy ways. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first visible victim of the plastic mess. Plastic bags were found to play a key role in the clogging of drains which resulted in disastrous flooding in Bangladesh in that year. Bangladesh did not think twice before banning the use of use of polythene bags in that same year to prevent further such disasters. Many countries and states in India have banned polythene bags since then.
Manipur banned the use of certain polythene bags (less than 50 microns in thickness) in 2017. However, the ban is yet to be fully implemented. Large-scale use of polythene bags is a common sight across markets in Imphal, the State capital. What is surprising is that even though polythene bags are now known to cause severe health hazards, they are not being automatically discarded by the people at large. And despite a ban declared by the concerned authorities, we are not able to stop the use of these polythene bags. This clearly indicates a lack of awareness in the people on the health implications of using polythene bags.
Let us try to fully understand the public health and environmental impacts of using polythene bags, especially in Manipur. Choking of drains and water channels resulting in floods is a direct consequence of plastic waste. Rivers and drains filled with polythene bags can be easily witnessed in many parts of Manipur, especially in urban areas, all year round. If not properly managed, this can result in flooding and inundation of low-lying areas during the monsoon months. Manipur has indeed been facing more frequent floods in recent years which only stand to worsen due to the accumulation of plastic waste.
What is perhaps more concerning than polythene bags choking our rivers and drains is the affect they may have on the fish and other aquatic organisms. Polythene bags break down into smaller particles through a process known as fragmentation, and end up becoming microplastic. These tiny bits of plastic are often ingested by fish and are known to have damaging effects on all aquatic animals. One estimate suggests that at least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are already suffering from plastic ingestion. Microplastics are known to absorb harmful toxic chemicals. These chemicals often get released from the microplastics when they are inside an animal’s body. What is even more concerning is that through fish, these microplastics are able to enter the human body. This is especially true in Manipur where fish is an integral part of the food intake. While research is ongoing to find out detailed impacts of microplastics on fish and on humans, there is enough data available to know that they cause much harm to both fish and to humans. Thus, the more polythene bags we use in Manipur, the more polythene we are consuming in our daily diet.
Polythene bags are often dumped on land or buried underground in order to get rid of them. Here too, it is well known that chlorinated plastic tends to release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil and in the ground water. A large number of waste polythene bags in Manipur mostly end up being burnt. This is because the Waste Management System in Manipur is yet to cover the entire State. An evening view from most rooftops in Imphal will reveal smoke emanating from all sides. The burning of waste, which includes large amounts of plastic, is actually the most unhealthy way of getting rid of plastic waste. This is because when plastic burns, it releases toxic gases some of which are also carcinogenic.
Repeated exposure to such toxic gases can cause many harmful diseases including cancer. In addition, toxic gases that are released from burning plastic are also known to have adverse neurological, reproductive and immunological impacts on the human body. This is even more concerning for Imphal Valley since once these toxic gases are released, they will not be dispersed immediately due to the hills on all sides. Thus, toxic gases from plastic burning will remain in the air for longer time thus exposing more and more people to their harmful impacts.
How polythene bags are impacting us is becoming more apparent as more and more data is being generated. However what is absolutely clear is that their use is causing harm to us and that people of Manipur are at a greater risk. However, due to their convenience and less cost, polythene bags are being readily used everywhere.
It is time we understand the actual human health cost of using polythene bags and take a pledge to stop using polythene bags altogether. The State can help by banning not just some plastic bags but implement a total ban on the use of all kinds of polythene bags. Remember, polythene bags may be very cheap, but your life is not!
The writer is Director, Delhi Greens organisation and has been an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies in the University of Delhi since the last six years. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Govind Singh