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Old Friday, March 23, 2007
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Exclamation HAZARDS of Plastic Bags.....

Plastic Bags

Hanging from the branches, flying in the air, stuck in corners racing along with the vehicles on the road are – as we all can see – PLASTIC BAGS. This wonder material of the 20th century has invaded every aspect of our lives; it is all over the place messing up the streets and parks, clogging up the drains and gutters. These plastic bags or shoppers as they are commonly called are available in all sizes, shapes and colours, and because of their lightweight, flexibility and low cost they are used and cast off freely.


Today people from all walks of life use plastic bags mainly because of their easy availability and convenience. Their use is so widespread that it is a wonder as to how people ever managed to do anything without them. There are a variety of bags available and they are put to different uses. The grocer packs most of the foods, grains, vegetables, fruits etc into clean transparent plastic bags, which keep the food in hygienic condition and even adds a touch of glitter to them. Apart from making it convenient for the consumer to buy them, these pre-weighed and clean packages help in saving time and energy for the buyer. Other items like clothes, toys, shoes, electric items, magazines are all pre-packed in plastic bags before being sold.

In the home front students and office goers prefer to pack lunches in plastic bags saving the effort of carrying and washing lunch boxes. The housemaids use these bags to carry food from their places of work to their home. The milk and bread men pack their goods in plastic bags before delivering them. Deep freezers are stocked with food stored in plastic bags.

The plastic carry bags and plastic garbage bags too have become an indispensable part of our lives. Garbage packed in a plastic bag and then disposed of, keeps our homes free of flies and insects while a shopping spree becomes more convenient and fun when these disposable plastic bags are around to carry all the bought items. Manufacturs too find these bags very effective to advertise their products and use it for this purpose very freely.

This is one side of the story, looking at the other side - what happens when we are through with these bags? How do we get rid of them? We throw them out but where do they go? How are they disposed? Come to think of it. …What does happen to plastic bags after use? After coming into our homes they are either thrown in garbage bins or left around, from where these bags fly away with the wind, destroying the beauty of nature and destroying the beauty of man-made structures in towns and cities. These plastic bags can be seen dangling from trees, electric wires, poles, balconies of houses and wherever they land, creating an eyesore, and acquiring them from such high up places becomes a cumbersome task, for the municipality.

Unobserved about 10 million plastic bags are thrown away everyday as waste. These bags cause blockage in the drainage and the sewerage system of the city causing water logging, germination of bacterial and water borne diseases, and spread of mosquitoes, etc. There are about 80 diseases caused by water borne germs, and only one piece of plastic is enough to block a drain causing water logging which in turn becomes a breeding ground for bacteria that cause these diseases.

It has been noted that in the developing countries like Pakistan these bags are used as mobile toilets. Due to their easy availability, light weight and non- leaking nature, the ignorant people in the villages use these bags to relieve themselves and leave them in the fields to rot, completely unaware of the hazard that will be created in time to come.

According to researchers plastic degenerates slowly, their degeneration time could be anytime from twenty to a thousand years and as time passes the plastic lies somewhere in between ‘complete preservation of structure and complete loss of structure’. In other words all plastics sooner or later break down into small pieces, leaving behind plastic-chunks or plastic-dust as residue. These chunks and dust are not biodegradable as their molecular structure is too large for micro-organism to swallow. This characteristic of plastic causes serious environmental and health problems.

The IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) has found that plastic bags have harmful effects on the soil, water and air. In the fields these plastic bags when deposited in high quantities cause soil infertility. The accumulation of plastic prevents the sunlight from entering the soil thus destroying the beneficial bacteria, so necessary for soil fertility. The acidic combination present in plastic, after a period of time disturbs the chemical formula of the soil, again causing loss of fertility. Since the plastic bags are picked up from the garbage and recycled, they tend to retain a lot of bacteria which are difficult to destroy, which in turn contaminates the food it will hold, causing ill health. The burning of plastic in temperatures less than 800 degrees Celsius in an open space creates noxious fumes such as hydrogen cyanide and other poisonous gases which cause air pollution resulting in skin, and respiratory problems and also certain kinds of cancer. Plastic wastes when dumped in or thrown into rivers, ponds or sea have disastrous effects on the species living underwater, and a lot of marine life is lost due to this. Listed below are some health hazards on land, and sea.

Hazards on land...

Plastic waste blocks drains and gutters, stopping the flow of rain water and sewerage, causing an overflow which becomes the breeding ground for germs and bacteria causing many diseases.
The toxic smoke produced while burning plastic kills thousands each year.
Workers and people living near a plastic or resin factory are prone to certain kinds of cancer and birth defects.
Plastic bags that fly and land in agricultural land retard the growth of the crops by wrapping itself around the plants.
Plastic waste that lie on the soil for long stop the passage of oxygen causing soil infertility.
Domestic animals like cows and goats are often found dead after swallowing bits of plastic that gets mingled with the grass they eat.

Hazards in the sea or coastal areas…

There are approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in each square mile of our coastal area.
More than one million sea birds and approximately 100,000 sea mammals die each year after ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic debris.
Some marine life has been found with plastic fragments in the stomachs and plastic molecules in their muscles.
Turtles, dolphins and other such marine creatures often mistake small plastic bags for jelly fish after following them and develop intestinal blockade which often lead to their death.
It is surprising that amongst the world full of the plastic users, very few are aware of the harmful effects of plastic even though environmentalists are busy creating an awareness of the hazards of plastic. Schools too are participating in educating the children about plastic hazards. Many countries have banned the use of plastic bags and many are in the process of doing so. With all this going on, the menace of plastic bags seems to be ever increasing. Certain statistics, listed below will show us the amount of plastics we use and discard.

~~ 12 million plastic bags are handed out to shoppers in Britain every year.
~~ 10 million plastic bags are disposed of by Bangladesh nationals every year.
~~ 6 billion plastic bags are thrown away by Australians every minute.
~~ The use of plastic in India has more than doubled in the last 20 years. It has increased from 1.8 million tons to about 5 million since 1995-96 up till now.

These are the statistics from some of the countries only. If we add up the plastics used all over the world the amount of plastic used and discarded will be enormous. Since plastics non-bio-degradability is creating serious environmental and health problems and something should be done about it.

Environmental R’s.

Curtailing or banning the use of plastic bags will help and so will the application of the environmental R’s. These R’s are used in a certain order to indicate the best ways to conserve natural resources. The correct order is:

Reduce
Recycle
Reuse


The first R stands for Reduce.
This means that there should be a reduction in the use of plastics; Conservation in this regard should be practiced. Whenever possible more items in bigger packaging should be bought. Paper and other biodegradable bags should replace the plastic ones.

The second R stands for Recycle.
Plastic can be recycled but to recycle them, plastic will have to be disposed of properly. These bags should be knotted up and then thrown into garbage bins from where they can be picked up by proper sources, and used for recycling.

The third R stands for Reuse.
As far as plastic bags are concerned they should be used as many times as possible thus curtailing their use.

Cited above are the many advantages of the use of plastic bags along with its many disadvantages. It is now up to individuals to weigh both the qualities and see for themselves what will outweigh the other. If we all do our little bit to keep our environment clean and healthy, we will be successful in handing a clean and a healthy environment to our next generation, which they so rightly deserve.
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