Is plastic the real villain?

In my school days, when we were taught about fibres I was in absolute awe by the varieties of fibres that were made in labs each having properties which were unique. The fibres were called synthetic fibres as they were prepared by man by using chemicals. The synthetic fibres were made of small units that join together to form long chains. Rayon, nylon, polyester, acrylic etc.

Nylon fibres have high tensile strength. Nylon fibres are very strong. It is used for making ropes used for climbing rocks and for making parachutes.Then came the thermosetting and the thermostatic plastics. Thermosetting plastic cannot be bent easily. It may break when forced to bend while the latter can be bent easily. Hence saucepan handles are made of thermosetting plastics.

Adaptable, lightweight, cheap and hygienic, plastics form a part of our daily lives. Starting from your car seat belts to spacecrafts. Plastic really did change our world. Back then in late 90s in my school days for me synthetic fibres were revolutionary.

There is a lot of noise about plastics posing a threat to the wildlife and environment. With the screening of blue planet 2 people have become more aware and worried. And rightly so.

But if we look back in time, we will find the invention of synthetic polymers actually helped save wildlife. The early billiard balls were made of ivory but were replaced by various forms of plastics over the years. Ivory balls remained in use in artistic billiards competition until the late 20th century when the industry started experimenting with various other synthetic materials for billiard balls such as Bakelite, Crystallite and other plastic compounds. Currently they are made of phenolic resin, polyester and acrylic. The earlier toothbrushes used to have bristles which were made up of coarse hair of hog and were attached to handles made of bones and bamboo.The animal bristle was not an ideal material as it was not hygienic and the bristles were often extricated from their intended fixed insertions. In addition to bone, handles were made of wood or ivory. The ivory handles were then gradually replaced by celluloid, the natural bristles were replaced by synthetic ones and thus the current toothbrush started to take shape. Plastic Wood made out of high-density polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrene are often recovered from waste. Plastic wood is a replacement for natural wood and hence helps keeps our forests green.

Synthetic fibres have so many advantages that their inventors would have hardly imagined that plastic would someday become a villain.

Bangladesh has put a ban on plastics since 2002. Maharashtra has put in a complete plastic ban. Odisha is looking forward to banning plastics from October this year. Africa takes the plastic bag problem very seriously. But the ban has given rise to a black market. Just after the ban, plastic bag use in South Africa dropped 90%, though illegal use has increased gradually since then. With so many countries, states and cities putting a ban on plastics, is the journey over for plastics? How effective are these bans? Is plastic the real villain?

If we look the problem closely it’s not plastics which is the problem. Plastic is a beautiful invention and just like nuclear energy its the way we use it decides whats bad and whats good. Plastic is cheap and its indestructible. We take it for granted, rely on it too much, value it too little and are ready to throw it away after one single use. Its not the plastic which is at fault its our attitude towards plastic that needs to change.

My teachers were right. Plastics were revolutionary and will continue to be so. Its our throwaway culture which is the real villain and that needs to change.