Let us stop burning of plastic

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

Blue and Green for Organic Manipur - Awareness programme on Plastic pollution in Sep 2010
Blue and Green for Organic Manipur - Awareness programme on Plastic pollution in Sep 2010 :: Pix - Deepak Shijagurumayum

We have been discussing pollution and climate change at much higher planes and at global level. We all agreed that climate change is product of pollution and pollution comes from many sides. One such pollution is the domestic pollution, comprising of Household Air pollution and Household Garbage (both biodegradable and non biodegradable wastes).

The household air pollution (HAP) is caused by burning of cooking fuels in the kitchen, burning of mosquito repellent coils, incense sticks etc. In Indian homes burning of cow dung and agricultural residue also adds to HAP. According to WHO guidelines safe limit is 10-35 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic metre. In India, the HAP is much above this safe limit, the Indian states have more than 10 times of permissible limit. It is indeed an alarming situation and something needs to be done. But today, situation is much more alarming because every household produces a high quantity of plastic waste and most of them are burnt which adds to HAP. Burning plastic is highly dangerous form of pollution.

Last few weeks, the atmosphere has been laden with smoke. In every household, there is a column of smoke of burning of dried weeds, dried garbage, kitchen waste etc. These smokes also reach our living rooms and contribute to the particulate matter concentration of HAP making our living uncomfortable and causing health hazards. Though Manipur is considered to be quite safe in terms of industrial pollution, in terms of HAP, it is quite high and much beyond safe limit due to dependence on burning of firewood for cooking.

Plastic Compounds

We use plastic for many purposes, household items, constructional and industrial purposes and for our machines and they are all synthetic polymers. Synthetic polymers are anything that is manufactured by human beings. This types of polymers release reactants which are hazardous; both to humans and the environment. Synthetic polymers are mostly of petroleum based and a huge quantity of petroleum is being diverted to plastic manufacturing. It is one of the largest industries nowadays. The plastic products are popular because they are so handy, light and cheap, at one stage we thought that it was a boon to human beings, but now it is being realised that it is not a boon, but is going to be a doom for humans and wildlife both.

Plastics are non-biodegradable. The biodegradable or vegetable polymers are not yet produced on commercial scale. The common types of plastics found in the waste are Polythene bags and Sheets (polyethylene-PE) used as dispo-bags, storage bags and shopping bags; PVC (polyvinyl chloride) used in bottles, packaging and containers; PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) used predominantly in liquor and beverage bottles and similar containers; PS (polystyrene) a light spongy material (thermocol) used in meat, eggs and miscellaneous product trays and hot beverage cups; and PP (polypropylene) used in yogurt containers, straws, margarine tubs and special bags. Most of these plastics are discarded after single use and become garbage.

Hazards of Burning of Plastics

Burning of plastic is the most serious domestic pollution. When plastic is burned, it produces both smoke and fumes, which are pungent. These fumes make our breathing problematic and it is very bad for the people with asthma and respiratory problem. It can cause dizziness and nausea to some people.

They are very harmful for the lungs and can cause serious diseases. According to Dr. Brian Graham, President and CEO of Lung Association of SK, Canada, "The burning of plastic grain bags releases chemicals into the air that we all breathe, causing serious lung damage and contributing to other long-term health problems. For people with lung diseases such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, even a single exposure to this type of smoke can worsen their disease".

In Manipur burning of plastics is very common it is being done in every household almost every week. Plastic pollution is very common here aesthetically, it is worst form of pollution, but burning is a serious health hazard. In winter, the smoke of the plastics combining with evening fog hangs very low and remain as smog and continue to disturb for a long time. But one can see burning of plastic everywhere, in the garbage dumps in Imphal market, in the landfills, in the riversides, roadsides everywhere. Nobody seems to care a little bit of the health hazards it is causing.

In addition, researchers have also found high concentration of persistent free radicals. The free radicals are highly unstable and reactive molecules which damage body tissues. They are present both in the soot and the solid residual ash which are considered to be very important in the creation of adverse health effects especially to human lungs.

Pollutants released in Plastic burning

While burning Plastic, in addition to CO2, a number of heavy metals including lead, cadmium, chromium and copper have been found in the smoke and the solid residue ash which can be very harmful for the lungs. While burning plastic, a highly toxic fume called dioxin is produced due to the action of heat on plastic compounds. Another compound DEHP (or Di-octyl phthalate DOP) which is one of the plasticizers used in plastic manufacturing is also released.

It is also one of the dioxins. This compound is a probable human carcinogen, a potential endocrine disruptor and is believed to be harmful by inhalation, generating possible health risks and irreversible effects. It affects the immune systems also. Vinyl Chloride, precursor of PVC has been identified by WHO as human carcinogen. These compounds are also released during the combustion of plastic. In addition, there are many other pollutants such as Carbon Monoxide (CO), Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Particulate Matters (PMs), Aldehydes etc. released.

Another form of releasing pollutants is that the plastics are not burnt fully. It is always partially burnt as it gets stuck to other substances such as soil and ash and stops burning. Such materials remain in the soil for a long time releasing the toxic substances to the water, soil and air slowly.

The shreds of plastic in the soil become harbour for disease causing organisms. There is no chance of getting away from such pollutions.

Plastics are to be disposed off carefully. No biodegradable materials should be kept inside polybags so that rag pickers can sort them out. But our normal practice is that we put everything inside a plastic carry bag and throw it in to the rivers or drains.

At the best, we give it to volunteers of solid waste disposal groups. Then the plastic cannot be recycled or reused. If burned, it releases the toxic fumes. Then how such waste can be treated without burning? Burning has to stop. There should not be any question that why should it be stopped, it has to be stopped at any cost.

Rules to regulate Plastic Waste

The Central Government is empowered to frame environment related rules Under Sec. 3, 5 and 25 of Environmental Protection Act, 1986 and the central government has framed the Plastic Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011. The same is adopted in the state of Manipur also. As per Rule 5 of this rule, all plastic carry bags should be above 40 Ám and should be white in colour. As per Rule 8, while marketing, the thickness of the bags should be labelled. Rule 10 says that no free plastic bags should be provided to the customers by the shops and vendors and plastic carry bags should be reusable ones and conforming to prescribed thickness. They should be explicitly priced to cover waste management cost also.

Certain important aspect of plastic waste is missing. The irregular disposal of plastic has been left out totally. The large scale burning of plastics and throwing of plastics inside water channels, drainages and littering in public places have not been mentioned in the rules.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was set up under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 to expeditiously dispose the environmental and forests cases without following CPC. It was a follow up of the global climate initiatives and hastened by the WP (C) No. 202/1995. A few days back, it passed an order banning burning of Plastic and rubber. This order also banned recycling of plastic by unregistered units. The order of the tribunal would certainly give a fillip to the existing rules and pollution control boards in controlling the burning of plastics and other harmful polymers.


Now the question is, how we can reduce plastic waste as reducing is the most important step in controlling the waste. Getting rid of plastic is difficult, they do not dissolve, burying is again not the solution as they are not decomposed that easily. They can be carried away by wind and water, ultimately end up in the lakes, rivers and oceans. There, they break in to pieces and remain in the water or soil. They take one thousand years to decompose.

In the open air, the UV rays act upon them, and they go on releasing toxic chemicals continuously. Till we come up with commercially viable biodegradable polymers such as PLA (Polylactic Acid) and bio plastics, the only option left is to replace plastic with cloth bags, hessian cloth bags, paper bags etc. Single use Polythene bags known as Disposable Bags are banned in most states. These bags of lower gauges constitute 95% of plastic pollution and these are the plastics being burnt everywhere.

If plastic bags are to be used, then it should be within limits prescribed by the Pollution Control Boards. So, if we carry plastic bags, it should be heavy duty bags, reusable ones, which should last at least for half a year or one year or more. If we reuse the carry bags, we can reduce plastic waste in our family by 90%. The waste unavoidably generated after this can be carefully disposed by sending for recycling (there are various ways of recycling prescribed under Rule 6) thus we can reduce plastic waste to zero. The plastic waste is also used in the landfills. It is slightly safer, but not totally free from dangers to human beings.

So, carry shopping bags when you go for buying something that is most important action you can do to keep away cancer. It is such a simple action that we all can and must do. If you can't avoid using plastic bags, remember that you are inviting cancer.

* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on December 27, 2013.

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