The thesaurus gives the synonym of plastic as ‘Something that can be easily shaped or moulded’. Plastic is cheap, light, easy to store and transport, can take myriad textures and shapes, and can hold almost anything – making it the dream material for makers of all kind; hence rendering it ubiquitous. From our ketchup bottle to our credit cards, from wet wipes to storage containers, they are everywhere. That’s common knowledge. The question is - do we welcome it in the water we drink, or in the air we breathe? Studies published in the ‘Environmental Science & Technology’, prove the consistent presence of microplastics in table salt, across all continents, at levels correlating with local plastic emissions.

Unfortunately for us, ‘plasticity’ of the plastic peters out shortly after its life begins. At the other end of its life span we are left with the notoriously pervasive effects of a material that stubbornly refuses to disintegrate. There is an area in the north central Pacific Ocean, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where circular currents have concentrated plastic into one large location. Left to the elements, this plastic will start breaking down into microplastics: particles that are less than 1 mm in size - particles that are more harmful and harder to extract from the marine environment. Although the consequences of the plastic macro debris are well known, it is a little-known fact that scientists have been recovering microplastics from the soft tissues of a variety of marine organisms. It’s not hard to see how and why plastics are in our food chain now. For those of us who are wondering why all this ruckus about conservation and recycling, the reality is- its already high time. Even though millions are being spend by non-profit organisations, governments and corporates, au fait with the direness of the situation, nothing can withstand the torrent of plastic waste that we have been so tenaciously spewing out.

Recent years have seen a positive change in our environmental awareness. If you are one of those dutiful citizens who diligently segregate your recyclables, then please pause a while, before you pat yourself on the back for a deed well done. The path trodden by that discarded Cola bottle of yours is less than idealistic. Unofficial statistics show that UK produces more than 10 million tonnes of plastic waste in a year. Until now, two-thirds of this plastic is loaded on to container ships and sent overseas, mostly to developing countries for recycling. And that is where the ideal scenario ends, because much of it ends up in landfills or in the ocean instead. Still, this age-old established conveyor chain of waste transfer from developed countries to developing countries has been continuing unimpaired, until some of the world’s largest markets for recycled waste, have essentially shut their doors, due to public outrage and environmental concerns. Added to that there have been funding cuts on recycling. This has led to more waste being burned in incinerators and ‘energy-from-waste’ plants. Incineration, often criticised for being polluting, is today preferred to landfills, which emit methane and can leach toxic chemicals into the environment. Westminster council sent 82% of all household waste – including that put in recycling bins – for incineration in 2017/18.

It’s a shame on our faculties and on our moral sense, to be packaging our waste to countries who in all probability are ill equipped than us to responsibly deal with it. The grim reality as revealed by statistics is boring its way, surely, but painstakingly slowly to the legislators and policy makers at 10 Downing Street. Among its proposals: a tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled material; a simplified labelling system; and means to force companies to take responsibility for the plastic packaging they produce. They hope to force the industry to invest in recycling infrastructure at home. Supermarkets have promised to eliminate avoidable packaging and ensure all of it can be reused, recycled or composted by 2025; while more than 350 companies have signed a global commitment to eliminate the use of single-use plastics by 2025. Goes without saying that the commitment to go ‘relatively clean’ by 2025 is a feeble defence against the damage that has already been done and the cumulative effects of the damage the next 25 years will bring.

As threatening is the nondegradable nature of the plastic, that alone is not the reason for its virulent potential for inflicting long-lasting environmental damage. The production of plastic releases toxins. Recycling also has its share of carbon footprints. Household plastic waste is contaminated with non-recyclable materials, food waste, oils and liquids that rot and spoil the bales. This means the collection, sorting and recycling of plastic itself; has its own environmental impact. While virtually all plastic can be recycled, many aren’t because the process is expensive, complicated and in most cases, the resulting product is of lower quality than what you put in – making ‘Disposable plastic’ the biggest lie of our century.

As always, innovation is a double-edged sword. It is innovation that let the packaging industry flood our homes with cheap plastic and it is innovation that we can lean on to conjure up a solution. There is a ‘Chemical recycling’ process which Tesco is trying to partner with; IBM Research's, Chemistry and Materials wing is working on a catalyst - VolCat. The idea is to separate contaminants from problem plastic and produce monomers that can be feedstock for new plastic, essentially reducing the demand for virgin plastic. The France-based start-up Carbios is harnessing microbial enzymes capable of recycling plastic without compromising on its quality. Algae based biodegradable plastic boasts significantly low carbon dioxide emission during the production process, greatly reducing its environmental impact.

When we live in a time where space tourism is part of our causal conversation, I refuse to accept that we are having a hard time combating plastic pollution. The fact is that, half of us don’t care enough and the other half are discouraged by the unavailability of sufficient alternatives. Our stores are stocked with neatly packed single serve meals and on the go drinks. In the game of convenience versus conservation, the latter loses out most of the time. If we wait for awareness and good will to save the day, it will be a little too late for our planet and for all the wonders it holds. What we need are drastic regulations, that will force corporates to invest more in conservation-oriented research. And let’s bear in mind that a solution will indeed, involve all of us. It will be a transgression of our comfort zones and to some extent our wallets. Recycling and waste segregation at home will require us to commit a certain amount of our time. We could be taking reusable containers to kiosks, dispensing water; juices and milk. Innovations and regulations aside, I think each one of us can make a substantial positive impact if we could just remind ourselves that the sequencing of those three R’s is there for a reason; Recycling is beneficial only if we Reduce first and then Reuse.