Ghirish Sharma

Girish Sharma

Corning Incorporated Corporate Fellow
McKelvey School of Engineering: Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, PhD

Scholar Highlight

Plastic Pollution

Plastic is all around us. We are a community of plastic consumers, using bottles, phones, household items and more, fabricated using at least one form of plastic. The first and most common use of plastic began with a makeover of the natural-material based hair comb. Since then, technology has ensured all traditional natural substances are taken over by the highly versatile and moldable plastic, enabling us to expand the limits to which plastic materials can be fabricated.  

With the ongoing debate over climate change, plastic pollution seems like just another battle but not one that can be ignored. It is a global issue, affecting life forms on land as well as in water.

Owing to its slow degradation rate, we cannot think of successfully throwing plastic away as biodegradable garbage. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported: “every bit of plastic ever made still exists. It is bound to accumulate in various forms, causing environmental deterioration as evidenced by available facts. Our reliance on plastic has reached a new high, with nearly 311 million metric tons of plastic produced in 2014 alone. Out of 30 million tons of plastic discarded per year by Americans, only 8% of it is recycled. The remaining amount is either incinerated, releasing toxic air pollutants or put in landfills, generating chemical leachate that further contaminates our water resources.  

Every year 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in our oceans, having a deadly impact on the marine life onshore and offshore. The beautiful coastlines that are thronged by thousands of visitors year round are now lining up with a display of plastic debris that gets washed ashore. How does plastic disposed of on the land find its way into the water? In 1988, the beaches of New York and New Jersey saw an array of medical waste piling up on the shores. Now, these were either dumped directly into the main sewer system or got accumulated there during monsoons. There have also been several instances of garbage being dumped right into the sea, which accounts for the main reason behind plastic buildup in oceans. Since then, several laws have been implemented for the regulation of ocean dumpings, such as the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MARPOL), MPRSA 1972, ODBA 1988. Whales, sea lions, birds such as albatrosses, turtles, and microorganisms such as zooplanktons have adversely been affected by the accumulation of plastic. These aquatic victims often ingest small bits of plastic litter and plastic pellets called ‘mermaid tears’ floating around in the ocean, killing them to the point of threatening their existence. Such instances make me wonder whether this is the price we pay for our plastic convenience.  

In India, plastic is also the culprit of animal deaths. An open garbage system and the government’s neglect in managing the litter are major reasons why cows and bulls, often left to fend for themselves, ingest plastic from the garbage lying around. Although the Government of India has banned plastic below 50 microns and introduced stringent laws under Plastic Waste Management Rules to curb environmental pollution, yet we do not observe a huge change in the situation.  

People like to point out how it would be a rare possibility for marine life to encounter plastic in such a vast stretch of water. The truth is that the enormity of the ocean does nothing to disguise the gigantic amounts of plastic floating around. The trash keeps floating along with the currents, forcing them to accumulate in regions where currents meet, called ‘gyres’. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific Gyre, is the largest garbage landfill, occupying two huge regions of ever-growing trash. It moves in a circular motion, attracting the trash from the surrounding oceanic regions. At such a rate, it has been estimated that by 2050, oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight.  

What can we do now? Each one of us needs to adopt the 4 Rs– Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Refusing to accept plastic shopping bags, covers, straws, and bottles will help us in reducing our plastic footprint. We have to start looking for alternatives and adopt the naturally available materials such as paper, cardboard, liquid wood, bamboo for use at home. Starch-based polymers have also been receiving increasing attention due to its low-cost, degradable and renewable nature. It is a huge opportunity for scientific innovation to overcome the plastic menace but it is only possible with our help.