Uncovering the Full Scope of Plastic Pollution: Beyond what meets the eye

When we think of pollution, the usual culprits come to mind: air, land, sound, and water pollution, as well as the sight of streets littered with waste. Solutions often seem straightforward—keeping our streets clean and using waste bins to manage waste. However, is this enough to address the multifaceted issue of pollution? Even if we keep our streets clean and use waste bins diligently, what happens next? My understanding of pollution was limited until I attended a transformative training workshop at the Sambhaavnaa Institute in Palampur (Himachal Pradesh), co-organised by the Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA) in May 2024.

The workshop, titled “Plastic: The Toxic Love Story,” fundamentally changed my perspective on plastic pollution. Although I was aware of the 19 single-use plastic (SUP) items banned by the Union Government and the impact of this ban on street vendors, the workshop provided a detailed understanding of the broader implications of SUPs on the economy, public health, livelihood, and the environment. One of the most shocking revelations was the role of petrochemical companies in producing plastic and the impact of the entire lifespan of plastic products. It was alarming to learn how fossil fuels and over 16,000 chemicals, more than a quarter of which are hazardous and many even toxic, are used to produce plastics that seem to make our lives easier but, in reality, are destroying our health and environment.

The workshop highlighted the importance of understanding the upstream, mid-stream, and downstream aspects of plastic pollution. Upstream refers to the extraction and production processes, mid-stream involves the manufacture, use and distribution of plastic products, and downstream encompasses the post-use disposal and waste management. This comprehensive approach shed light on how the production and use of plastics are intricately linked to broader environmental and health issues.

One critical takeaway from the workshop was the realisation that we cannot focus solely on managing plastic waste. The packaging and supply-chain designs of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies play a significant role in perpetuating plastic pollution. Without restricting plastic production, waste management efforts will be insufficient and unsustainable. The concept of converting waste to energy, for example, often leads to further pollution, emphasising the need for redesign of these supply-chains and laws to make reusable packaging mandatory. The use and throw culture that we have transitioned to in the last 3-4 decades needs to be reversed back to the culture of refuse, repair and reuse that was embedded in our traditional way of life.

Documentaries screened during the workshop illustrated the real-world impacts of plastic pollution, making the learning process more impactful. To understand the over consumption of plastic, one video documentation was screened named “The Story of Plastic”. These visual aids helped participants grasp the severity and complexity of the issue, reinforcing the need for comprehensive and informed approaches to tackling plastic pollution.

A common pitfall in addressing environmental issues is the rush to find solutions without fully understanding the root cause of the problem. This often results in temporary fixes that ultimately lead to disappointment and failure. The workshop at Sambhaavnaa Institute emphasised the importance of thoroughly analysing the problem before working on the solutions. By focusing on discussing the root causes of plastic pollution, participants were encouraged to explore sustainable solutions that address the issue holistically.

In conclusion, the workshop “Plastic: The Toxic Love Story” significantly broadened my understanding of the complexities surrounding plastic use and disposal. It underscored the need to look beyond surface-level false solutions and consider the entire lifespan of plastic products. By understanding and addressing the full scope of the problem, we can develop more effective and sustainable solutions to combat pollution. I now realise that having complete knowledge and full information is essential for advancing my work for the cause.

Experience sharing by Souvik Ghosh
Project Manager: 'Just Transition for Street Vendors from Single Use Plastic'

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