Almost every one erroneously assumes that plastic can never be of animal origin!

To begin with, the word “plastic” indicates something that is malleable and can be shaped, formed, modelled or moulded. Apart from knowing what the material is capable of doing, we need to know the ingredients used to manufacture plastics.

Everyone is aware that saying NO to Plastics helps the environment and world heal. But there is another good reason, especially for those who care for animals, not to use it: it could contain animal substances.

Polymers are very large molecules which consist of monomers. Synthetic polymers are derived from petroleum oil and are man-made, e.g. nylon, polyethylene, polyester, Teflon and epoxy. Natural or organic polymers occur in nature, e.g. silk, wool, DNA, cellulose and proteins. Although rubber is harvested as latex from trees and is essentially a natural polymer, rubber can also be synthesized by man so vulcanized rubber is a man-made polymer.

Thermosets and Thermoplastics
Plastics are classified by their chemical structure and processes used. As manufacture is cheap, the range is fantastically wide, making their use a common part of every one’s life. Basically, there are two types of plastics:

Thermosets or thermosetting plastics/polymers are items such as vulcanized rubber, bakelite, duroplast, polyimides, melamine and epoxy resins. They melt and harden just once after which they remain solid and can never be melted again for recycling. They are utilised for products such as electrical light fittings and handles for kitchen utensils. However, prior to “curing” thermoset materials are malleable and could be made, for example, into adhesives.


Thermoplastics also require heat or chemicals to harden from liquid to the desired shape, but they can be re-melted and re-moulded more than once because they do not undergo chemical changes in their composition when heated. They are used to make consumer and industrial products ranging from toothbrush bristles to car bumpers. Some examples are Polyethylene, Polystyrene, Polypropylene, Poly Vinyl Chloride and Polytetrafluoroethylene.

The most common thermoplastic polymer resin is Poly Ethylene Terephthalate, commonly known as PET as used for making bottles. In May 2016 the Government of India’s top pharmaceutical committee endorsed latest tests and recommended a ban on use of plastic bottles for drug packaging. However, government was undecided on whether PET packaging should be banned for non-essential products such as beverages, oils and liquor.

Beginning 2 October 2016 the Ministry of Tourism & Culture banned polythene bags in a radius of 100 metres of all monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Packaged foods in plastic wrappers will not be allowed, but water bottles will be permitted.

However, in Bengaluru a replacement to plastic bottles is being experimented upon. “Balls of water” i.e. edible water containers are made by cooking alginate till it forms a membrane around the cubes and air bubbles emerge on them after which they become a little round in shape. New to India, but not UK where the product is called Ooho. The spherical packaging made of seaweed is biodegradable and can encapsulate any beverage or liquid including water, soft drinks, spirits, juices and even cosmetics. The company by the name of Notpla has also created a pouch for dry goods and a liner for cardboard food containers.

Similarly Footprint produces a fibre-based alternative to single use plastics. Its shelf life is as long as plastic, but it is biodegrade and can turn into compost; it can even be put in the microwave unlike plastic.

The Maharashtra State Government had announced that there will be a ban on all plastic bags, packaged water bottles, sachets, packaging material from Gudi Padwa (18 March 2018). However, in mid-March 2018 the state cabinet approved a ban only on plastic bags of all thickness, one-time plastic (even thermocol) cups, plates, spoons, straws, and flex items. (PET bottles and jars, as well as garbage bags were not banned.) The responsibility of implementation and punishment was that of local bodies and the state Pollution Control Board (MPCB). Amendments to the Solid Waste Management Act 2016 and the Plastic Carry Bags (Manufacture and Usage) Rules 2006 include a fine ranging from Rs 5,000/- to Rs 25,000/- and a jail term of 3 months. The banned plastic items are the very things that are unknowingly ingested by animals and birds that suffer and eventually die.

The reasons for opposing the ban in Maharashtra were it would lead to major rise in unemployment, difficulties in recycling milk pouches, and so on. The government was also urged not to impose a ban on freshness bags. Meanwhile the use of material made from starch was suggested in place of plastic.

Sikkim is considered as the most successful state in banning plastic.

In September 2019 the Government of India issued an Advisory to States curbing the manufacture of single-use plastic items by 2 October 2019. The state governments were urged to act against all plastic carry bags irrespective of thickness and size, plastic tableware & cutlery including plates, cups, spoons, forks, glasses, straws, stirrers, decorative items made of Styrofoam (thermocol), artificial flowers, flower pots, banners, flags, stationery items like folders, PET bottles, etc.

Raw Materials

Some plastics originate from petroleum/oil and natural gas. They can be synthetic or semi-synthetic organic solids. Natural plastic materials are from plant resins and shellac (lac insect). Chemically modified natural materials are rubber and nitrocellulose (both from plants), collagen (connective tissues of animals) and casein (milk protein). Completely synthetic molecules’ examples are Bakelite, Epoxy, Polyvinyl Chloride, and Polyethylene.

For years scientists have been trying to develop plastics with different renewable materials to replace petroleum. Many feel that keratin (derived from feathers, hair, hooves, horns and wool) can lend strength and durability to thermoplastics. Research utilising chicken feathers (said to be “inexpensive, abundant and a waste product of the poultry industry”) to make plastics has been undertaken. In UK and USA, processes to clean and powder egg shells to fill biodegradable plastics that bolster strength were developed in 2016. Plant proteins and modified starch (from corn and peas) are also being experimented upon. In 2017 China decided to get rid of its massive corn stockpile by using it as raw material for its fledgling biodegradable plastics industry. The government began promoting the nation’s poly lactic acid (PLA) sector which turned corn starch and cassava (tapioca) into biodegradable plastic products like bags and plates. Also crustaceans’ hardy shells contain chitin, a material that, along with its derivative chitosan, is being used by the plastic industry to make biodegradable PLA.

Interestingly, in 2019 over a dozen pubs in the UK declared that they felt it was their duty to inform their customers that the biodegradable PLA alternative to plastic straws they were using were made from chitosan and therefore were unsuitable for vegans and vegetarians.

Another replacement idea is liquid wood which comes from pulp-based lignin, a by-product of paper mills. And, the starch from the taro/arbi/kochu tuber can be used to make plastic that degenerates over time. Last but not least, glass is a viable alternative for plastic packaging.

In 2018 researchers in US and Britain declared that they had accidentally engineered an enzyme (however, further improvements to are required) which eats plastic and could solve the global plastic pollution of more than 8 million tonnes.

Additives and Processes

There are scores of additives utilised for and during manufacture of different plastics and some of them are of animal origin. Also, some chemicals used are said to cause cancer. For example, bright and shiny red, green, yellow, orange coloured inexpensive vinyl and even leather products are tainted with high levels of lead. The permissible limit set for vinyl is 200 ppm, whereas it is 300 ppm for leather.

Bone black pigment not only produces jet black coloured plastic items, but it is also used to tone plastics (and linoleum) as it does not overpower other colours. Its use avoids streaking and results a uniform colour on finished products.

Slip agents consisting of fatty acids derived from tallow, are added to polymer formulations as lubricants thus preventing polymers from sticking to metal surfaces during extrusion or mould release.

Packaging films or thin plastic sheets required to move on a machine’s metal surface at a fast speed, also need slip agents, e.g. Oleamide (C-18) – mainly used in Polyolefins like shrink wrap or film. Erucamide (C-22) is a non-animal origin slip agent and is the most commonly used slip additive. Stearamide, another fatty acid, is often used together with Erucamide or Oleamide to provide an anti-blocking effect.

Polyolefin and other plastic films have a tendency to adhere together, often making it difficult to separate layers. This adhesion is called blocking and so some polymers require anti-blocking additives. Compounded into the plastic, such additives create a micro-rough surface which reduces adhesion. Synthetic silica, natural silica, limestone, talc, zeolites and organic additives such as hard waxes and fatty acid amides are utilised for anti-blocking effects. Often slip and anti-block additives are used together to provide the optimum balance in performance.

On consulting the Central Institute of Plastics Engineering & Technology, Beauty Without Cruelty re-confirmed the above information and also got to know that clear plastics are very likely (but not absolutely certain, because ingredients differ with manufacturers) to be without animal substances.

Classification of Plastics for Consumer Items

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate or PETE
Description: Commonly recycled. It sometimes absorbs food odours and flavours form food and drinks stored in them.
General Properties: Good gas & moisture barrier properties, high heat resistance, clear, hard, tough, microwave transparency, solvent resistant.
Common uses: Household items like soft drink beverage bottles, medicine jars, ropes, clothing and carpet fibres, prepared food trays roasting bags, boil in the bag food pouches, some shampoo and mouthwash bottles.
2. High-Density Polyethylene or HDPE
Description: Safe and not known to transmit any chemicals in to foods or drinks. Commonly recycled. Never safe to reuse an HDPE bottle as a food or drink container if it did not originally contain food or drink.
General Properties: Excellent moisture barrier properties and chemical resistance, hard to semi-flexible and strong, sot waxy surface permeable to gas, HDPE films crinkle to the touch, pigmented bottles, stress resistant.
Common uses: Milk containers, motor oil, shampoos and conditioners, soap bottles, detergents and bleaches, etc.
3. Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC
Description: Sometimes recycled. PVC should not encounter food items as it can be harmful if ingested.
General Properties: Excellent transparency, hard, rigid (flexible when plasticized), good chemical resistance, long-term stability, good weathering ability, stable electrical properties, low gas permeability.
Common uses: Credit cards, carpet backing and other floor covering, window and door frames, guttering, pipes and fittings wire and cable sheathing, synthetic leather products, etc.
4. Low-Density Polyethylene or LDPE
Description: Sometimes recycled. A very healthy plastic tends to be both durable and flexible.
General Properties: Tough and flexible, waxy surface, soft – scratches easily, good transparency, low melting point, stable electrical properties, good moisture barrier properties.
Common uses: Films, fertiliser bags, refuse sacks, packaging films, bubble wrap, flexible bottles, irrigation pipes, thick shopping bags, wire and cable applications, some bottle tops & caps.
5. Polypropylene or PP
Description: Occasionally recycled. PP is strong and can usually withstand higher temperatures.
General Properties: Excellent chemical resistance, high melting point, hard but flexible waxy surface, translucent, strong.
Common uses: Most bottle caps, ketchup and syrup bottles, yoghurt containers, potato crisp and biscuit wrappers, crates, plat pots, straws, lunch boxes, refrigerated containers, fabric and carpet fibres, heavy-duty bags & tarpaulins.
6. Polystyrene or PS
Description: Recycled (difficult).
General Properties: Clear to opaque, glassy surface rigid or foamed, hard brittle high clarity, affected by fats and solvents.
Common uses: Yoghurt containers, egg boxes, fast food boxes and trays, video cases, vending cups and disposable cutlery, seed trays, coat hangers low cost brittle toys, packing foam, etc.
7. Others
Description: Difficult to recycle. Miscellaneous types of plastics not defined by the other six codes. Polycarbonate or PC finds use in baby bottles, compact discs and medical storage containers.
General Properties: Many OTHER polymers exist that have a wide range of uses in engineering sectors. They have the number 7 and OTHERS (or a triangle with numbers from 7 to 19).
Common uses: Nylon (PA), Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), Polycarbonate (PC), Layered or multi-material mixed polymers, etc.

Apart from animal substances, there are some other serious problems with plastics although they are considered one of the greatest innovations (lightweight, durable, re-usable, having gone a long way in helping world economy) used in just about every thing and found every where.

It has been widely publicised that plastics degrade very slowly and are therefore harmful to the environment, but, no one has been able to reliably say exactly how long because plastic has been in existence for no more than just over than half a century! Like other items, they too are bound to take hundreds of years to decompose. A glass bottle can take more than 4,000 years, and leather up to 5,500 years – an old leather shoe was found in an Armenian cave by archaeologists in 2010.

However, certain places have a tremendous amount of plastic rubbish to dispose off and indiscriminately dump it, giving rise to toxic waste problems. Some incinerate these quantities of fast-mounting plastics resulting in poisonous gases being produced, which in turn cause acid rain and pose health hazards.

Ways and means to decompose plastics have been searched for by every country. In 2015 Chinese scientists declared that yellow mealworms could fully digest polystyrene (one of the most difficult) and degrade it into carbon dioxide and nutrition. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem either kind or practical because the mealworm is the larval form of the beetle. In 2017 researchers from the University of Cambridge in UK, also exposed wax worms (larvae of the common insect called greater wax moth, used as fishing bait) to plastic and found that the caterpillars produced something that transformed polyethylene into ethylene glycol resulting in extremely fast degradation of plastic. Latest research in India involves insects that eat polystyrene (thermocol), secrete manure, kill pests or are terminated by nematodes.

Phthalates, a group of chemicals are used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastics, specifically PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride) utilised in hundreds of consumer products such as packaging of food and drinks, vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils and automotive plastics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA) findings, the consumption of food and drink from plastic containers exposes people to the harmful effects of phthalates. So does storage, as also if food and drink is handled with vinyl gloves, or tubing has been used during processing. Furthermore, the University of Michigan, School of Public Health in Ann Arbor, found phthalates to be linked to many adverse health outcomes ranging from toxicity to developing male reproductive systems, neuro-developmental issues, miscarriage and pre-term birth. Good enough reasons to watch food packaging materials and to begin with avoid fast foods.

Car tires are considered environmentally unfriendly as they are predominately made from fossil fuels. Isoprene, the key molecule in car tire manufacture is produced by thermally breaking apart molecules in petroleum. However in 2017 researchers from the University of Minnesota (USA) found that isoprene can be derived from biomass: trees, grasses or corn. Thus technology to make ‘green’ car tires is available.

Plastic vs. Paper vs. Cloth
Many are against the use of plastic and paper.

Between the two, paper degrades faster.

The gasses produced through recycling of packaging plastics (PE and PP) are carbon and hydrogen. They do not emit any toxic gases, only greenhouse gas (GHG).

The manufacture of paper causes felling of trees leading to deforestation, unless the paper is made totally of straw, bagasse, or through recycling paper, or even Tetra Pak. However, the majority of paper bags are made by heating wood chips under pressure at high temperatures in a chemical solution. The use of these toxic chemicals for paper manufacture results in 70% more air pollution (like acid rain) and 50% more water pollution.

More GHG and toxic gasses are emitted during paper manufacture than in the production of PE and PP.

From the environmental point of view, recycled plastics are preferable to paper. But, there is no doubt that both paper and plastic have a big environmental impact.

Interestingly, following a ban on the use of plastic straws, paper straws are increasingly being used, but few people are aware that they are made by rolling three layers of bleached waste paper and dipping in glue. Those who use them for having beverages are indirectly consuming non-veg substances because animal glue is actually low grade gelatine. Both are made from hides and skins, hide trimmings such as marks, snouts, ears, shanks, skin of slunk/unborn animals, tendons, sinews, horn pith, casing and loose connective tissues.

Some paper straws are coated with bees wax to maintain their shape.

In 2023 a new European study revealed that the majority of paper and bamboo straws contained potentially harmful chemicals known as Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These long-lasting chemicals could post risks not just to humans, but also to wild life and the environment.

When in an attempt to find alternatives to plastic straws, some companies in UK began choosing straws made from chitosan, derived from aquatic creatures consisting of exoskeletons of crustaceans like shellfish like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp, vegetarians and vegans were warned that these alternative biodegradable straws were unsuitable for them. In fact, chitin is globally being used as a resource for eco-friendly bioplastics.

As much as 20 times more water is utilised in the manufacture of paper bags, and more energy is necessary to recycle paper. Nevertheless, India needs to recycle much more plastic. In 2018 only 60% plastic waste was being recycled, whereas some other countries were recycling over 90%.

Cloth bags used as an alternative to both plastic and paper also consume energy not commonly known. For example, as against 30,000 cotton bags fitting into a 20-foot container, 2.5 million plastic bags can be accommodated in the same space. And, to transport them 20 times the number of ships or trucks, utilising 80 times more fuel, would be needed.

The Comparison of Environmental impact of Plastic, Paper and Cloth Bags by the Northern Ireland Assembly, UK Environment Agency states that a re-useable cloth bag would have to be taken out 131 times to reduce its environmental impact to that of a single-use plastic bag. And that sturdy cloth or canvas bags need to be used over and over again at least 500 times to recover the ecological investment.


The most meaningful action taken in India was when in 2014 the Prime Minister launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. Not only does it aim to help humans live in a clean environment, but animals benefit if garbage is disposed off discerningly.

Cling film used for keeping food fresh, thin plastic found in mithai boxes, vacuum packing in plastic film, shrink wrap used to cover items in a tight fit, milk pouches, small and large plastic bags in which foodstuff and other items are packed or carried, plastic sachets, cello-tape, stickers, sticks of cotton buds, and even bottle caps, metal pins and staples, should all be carefully segregated and separately handed over to local garbage collectors for re-cycling or proper disposal.

No type of plastic should be simply thrown away or even used as a “plate” to feed stray dogs, cats or cattle. Surgeries need to be frequently performed upon animals for the removal of indigestible plastics from their intestines. Autopsies on cattle have revealed as much as 55 kgs of plastics in their stomachs. In 2021 during a surgery on a cow that had been injured in an accident at Faridabad 71 kgs of plastic waste including items like pins, needles, coins, glass and screws were found in its belly.

Zoo animals like deer have suffered and died due to having eaten plastic thrown in their enclosures by pranksters. Similarly, deer and monkeys in the wild have consumed plastic bags and small empty gutkha sachets, suffered and succumbed to death. Plastic in an animal’s gut prevents food digestion and leads to a very slow and painful death, but the cause gets known only upon post-mortem.

In May 2011 at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) Mumbai a spotted deer struggled for hours after a piece of plastic got stuck in its mouth because garbage had been lying behind the staff quarters for days. This was but one recent example of how wildlife is adversely affected due to plastic garbage in protected areas. BWC therefore immediately wrote to the Ministry of Environment & Forests requesting that immediate strict measures to ensure that no plastic or hazardous materials are found in all places in India where wildlife can unsuspectingly consume them. That it was the duty of the staff of the forest departments and others to get the rule implemented on an on-going daily basis. It was also pointed out that similarly, plastic affected creatures living in water.

Soon after, the SGNP’s new Chief Conservator of Forests formed groups for the purpose of picking up plastic bottles, gutkha pouches and polythene bags. Visitors are now warned that under the Wildlife Protection Act any person littering or throwing plastic inside the forest is liable to pay a fine of Rs 20,000/- at least and be imprisoned up to three years.

In 2017 it was reported that 500 kgs plastic waste collected around Maharashtra’s Bhimashankar temple (located within a wild life sanctuary by the same name) had been converted into fuel and distributed to villagers.

Plastic has been found the Buxa Tiger Reserve despite so much awareness against throwing plastic in forest areas. In 2019 elephant dung in West Bengal was found to contain carry bags, gutka pouches and empty packets. The plastic obviously originated from trains passing through the Rethi-Moraghat elephant corridor and from the Rethi riverbed. People have also seen elephants foraging in city garbage bins that contain plastic. In Rishikesh (Uttarakhand) monkeys are commonly found chewing on food wrappers. A 2019 study published in Current Science stated that some species are becoming increasingly dependent on anthropogenic food waste and can accidentally ingest plastic leading to seeral health problems such as stomach ulcers, reproductive disruptions and premature death.

Later in 2019 it was most disturbing when a photo of a leopard chewing on plastic near Corbett went viral.

It has been estimated that in India 300 million plastic items (spoons, plates, etc.) are used and thrown away daily. This made an entrepreneur invent edible cutlery of sorghum, rice and wheat flour and he set up Bakeys Foods to manufacture and market it. By adding ingredients such as sugar, ginger or black pepper this cutlery has been made tasty for humans, but even if we don’t eat it ourselves and animals pick it up from the garbage, unlike plastic, it can do them no harm, in fact it will benefit them because it is made from different grains. Moreover, it is cheaper than food-grade and biodegradable plastic cutlery which is deadly if eaten by animals.

New law for Single-Use Plastic: The Government of India has notified Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021 that state the thickness of plastic carry bags that are currently (from September 30, 2021) 75 microns from December 31, 2022 would be increased to 120 microns to allow them to be reused.

These rules also state: “The manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of following single-use plastic, including polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, commodities shall be prohibited with effect from July 1, 2022: ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, polystyrene (thermocol) for decoration; plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straws, trays; wrapping or packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, and cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron, stirrers,…” However, the provisions will not apply to commodities made of compostable plastic.

Twenty days prior to the rule coming into force on 1 July 2022, it was reported that beverage companies led by Amul and Parle Agro unsuccessfully petitioned the Government to delay the ban on plastic straws fearing that their sales may fall if they import biodegradable PLA or paper straws because the price would rise by 259% or 278% making it uneconomical. They hoped that after manufacturing units are set up in India, the price would be viable. Reference information above with regard to manufacture of paper straws in India, BWC wonders if the new paper straws will continue to be made by rolling three layers of bleached waste paper and dipping in animal derived glue. And what if PLA ones are utilised, would they have animal origin components?

BWC wrote to India’s largest beverage company, to make doubly sure that the straws they would be supplying with their tetra packs are suitable for vegans and vegetarians. However, we did not receive any assurance from them to this effect.

It is important, but difficult no doubt especially if imported, to get to know the origin of the PLA (poly lactic acid) from which the biodegradable straws attached to the tetra packs are made.

But what about the tetra packs? What are they made of? Tetra Pak is the name of an international company and since it was the first to come out with such cartons, the item got to be commonly called and known as tetra pack. Although Tetra Pak as claimed to be the first company in the food and beverage industry of offer packaging with a fully traceable supply chain of plant based polymers, the ingredients used by other manufacturers of tetra packs may or may not be of plant origin.

In the light of the information given above it would be worth remembering that even if the content in the tetra pack is vegan or vegetarian, the carton itself and the straw supplied may contain animal derived substances.

People believe PLA straws are an environmentally sound choice over single-use plastic ones. But this is not so (irrespective of what the PLA is made from) unless they are disposed off correctly. In order for items made from PLA to biodegrade, the temperature needs to be above 140°F for 10 consecutive days. They do not decompose in landfills, and cannot be composted in gardens. So if not sent to an industrial composting facility, they can, just like plastic straws, end up in rivers and the ocean, and are as likely to be consumed by marine wildlife and fish, ultimately harming or killing them.

Incidentally, some years ago BWC wrote to Johnson & Johnson requesting that they should stop selling ear buds with plastic sticks globally, not only in Europe.

By 2021 there were several edible cutlery manufacturers in India from making the items from edible wheat bran and others from millets. However, being expensive they were only targeting high end parties, destination weddings, film shoots, 5-star hotels and resorts. Meanwhile, some manufacturers also began producing cheaper bamboo and wood alternatives.

Similarly another entrepreneur researched and established EnviGreen Biotech, a company that produces 100% organic, biodegradable and eco-friendly bags that can be used in place of plastic bags. These bags are made of 12 ingredients including potato, tapioca, corn, natural starch, vegetable oil, banana and flower oil, and can therefore become animal food on disposal. Interestingly, if placed in a glass of water at normal temperature, an EnviGreen bag dissolves in a day, and if placed in boiling water, it dissolves in just 15 seconds.

Before such cutlery and crockery came about there were other eco-friendly and cost-effective plates in existence like the banana leaf and palash or kachnar dried leaf plates called pattal and bowls called donas.

BlinkGreen is a new venture that has begun creating footwear using soles made from discarded truck tyres and other eco-friendly material. Sponge, rexine and cloth are used for the uppers – BWC hopes the cloth is not silk.

Spiber silk which is made from spiders using microbial fermentation and falsely claims to be vegan silk is planning on replacing plastic globally.

A New Zealand based company Humble Bee Bio is working to create by June 2023 a biodegradable plastic alternative by studying the Australian masked bee and using its genetic blueprint to develop a sustainable lab material. This bee specie doesn’t make honey, but it does make a nesting material for laying larvae which has many plastic-like properties: is resistant to acids and bases, is hydrophobic, waterproof, flame retardant and stable up to 240°C.

In Australia beeswax wrap has emerged as an eco-friendly, but expensive alternative to plastic cling-film because it is not only biodegradable, but also washable and reusable.

Plastic bags and used balloons can also be death traps for fish and other creatures if they find their way into streams. Some marine life have mistaken plastic for jelly fish, consumed it and died. Research has found that over 50 species of fish are known to eat plastic and 700 marine species are exposed to it. Plastic starts to smell like food to fish after it has been in the sea for three weeks. In November 2013, off The Netherlands’ coast a sperm whale was found dead due to a stomach full of plastic thrash. In fact, balloon releases have killed marine lives and also birds. There is no doubt that balloons pose unintended threats to birds: they may inadvertently eat them, or they may get entangled with the string/ribbon, no different to kite-string. Even a single balloon is a potential hazard for creatures of land, sea and air. Do not believe that balloons are safe to release because they can rise to a height of 5 miles before their burst into minuscule pieces and therefore environment friendly. The fact is that each and every balloon behaves differently and eventually falls on land or in water and is always “enticing food” for animals and birds.

Balloons are the biggest threat to seabirds. A 2019 study by researchers at the University of Tasmania in Australia found while soft plastics only accounted for 5% of the plastics consumed by albatrosses and other birds, they were responsible for 40% of deaths. Balloon fragments resulted in blockages of the gastrointestinal tract followed by infections that caused death.

Dove and butterfly releases are worse than balloon releases. Bubbles are often thought of as an alternative since they rise and float away and don’t seem to have the potential of harming any creatures or causing them harm. But, blowing bubbles is not recommended because to begin with they are not environmentally friendly and result in air pollution. In addition to which they usually contain glycerine or honey which apart from being of animal origin, attract bees and wasps. The soapy solution can prove to be toxic too.

A scientist has recorded evidence of 170 species suffering the effects of discarded plastic items. We positively need to realise that if we are not careful in our disposal of plastics, they get inadvertently consumed by animals, creatures that live in water bodies and birds that accidentally strangle or suffocate themselves in plastic bags. In 2014 it was estimated that 192 coastal countries were responsible for dumping plastic into the oceans, of which India is listed at number 12, annually dumping 0.24 million tonnes of plastic. Furthermore, in 2015 scientists in Washington estimated that as many as 9 out of 10 of the world’s seabirds were likely to have pieces of plastic in their guts. That’s because research has shown that the scent of a sulphur compound from algae growing on plastic misleads them into believing it is food.

Closer home the Institute of Oceanography has found that marine organisms along Goa’s shoreline are facing a threat from plastic debris that is washed ashore during the monsoon. Micro plastic pellets, smaller than 1 mm, reach Goa’s coast via passing ships.

Global plastic production grew 21 times a year: in 1964 it was 1.5 crore tonnes, whereas in 2014 it was 31.5 crore tonnes. And, there was a dramatic increase between 2004 and 2014 when the amount of plastic produced rose by 38%. In 2010 between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons of plastic was washed into the seas and has since shown up in the stomachs of whales, plankton and other marine life. No wonder a 2016 UN report warns of this most dangerous environmental problem facing the world: millions of tons of tiny debris from plastic bags, bottles and clothes in the world’s oceans present a serious threat to human health and marine ecosystems. According to a study which analysed the guts of fish sold in Indonesia and California found that 25% fish contain plastic.

In January 2017 at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos in Switzerland, 40 industry leaders (including from India) supported a new plan to recycle plastic waste fearing that oceans may have more plastic than fish by 2050 if no urgent steps are taken.

Ahead of Independence Day 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs advised states, UTs and central ministries against the use of national flags made of plastic since they were not biodegradable and ensuring their disposal commensurate with dignity of the flag was a practical problem.

Plastic has been found in the stomachs of creatures living over 10 kilometres below the ocean surface which indicates that all the world’s marine ecosystems must be impacted by anthropogenic debris. Our oceans are overflowing with plastic waste, so much so that the tiny uninhabited Henderson Island (10 x 5 kms) in the Pacific Ocean was found to have approximately 38 million pieces of trash washed up upon it. Every year 80 lakh tonnes of plastic lands up in the ocean – in fact, 15 crore tonnes of plastic is currently in the ocean. This can easily rise to 25 crore tonnes by 2025. And by 2050, the plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish, and 99% of seabirds will be eating it.

In 1960 only 5% seabirds ate plastic, but by 2010, 80% ate it. A 2015 study found that most had eaten fragments of plastic floating in the ocean. Researchers found as many as 200 pieces of plastic in a single bird. Common items include plastic fibres, bag fragments, cigarette lighters, bottle caps, plastic bottles and synthetic textiles.

The Ocean Conservancy, National Geographic has stated what has been dumped into the world’s oceans:
Trash Haul:
9.2m kg total weight of trash collected over 24 hours along ocean-sides and water bodies worldwide.
28 km length of the towel that could be created with rope discarded on beaches.
243 km approximate length that drinking straws gathered from beaches would stretch.
5 standard swimming pools space that plastic bottles found on beaches would fill.
5 marathons (Olympic marathon = 42.195 km) length that cigarette butts collected from beaches would stretch if laid end to end.
Garbage Break Up:
2.4m cigarette butts
1.7m food wrappers
1.5m plastic bottles
1.5m grocery and other plastic bags
1.2m plastic/foam takeaway containers
1.09 plastic bottle caps

Of late discarded masks are commonly found in garbage. Many consist of plastic which can like other items be unknowingly ingested by animals and birds. Also, birds have been found entangled in those masks whose straps had not been cut.

Burning plastic results in carcinogenic toxic dioxin, which is as bad as dumping, instead of recycling it. In fact, plastic even without burning contains harmful chemicals. For example, fast food packaging is coated with a chemical that repels grease. Known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, they are highly persistent synthetic chemicals associated with cancer, developmental toxicity and immunotoxicity.

A study undertaken by Researchers from Heriot-Watt University, UK, found that we could be swallowing over 100 tiny plastic particles with every meal because polymers from soft furnishings and synthetic fabrics get into household dust and settle on our plates.

Microfibers from fabrics find their way into the ocean and are swallowed mistakenly by sea creatures.

Microplastics have been found in sea salt samples across India by various research groups. The number found in 1 kg varied between 35 and 575 particles. They were polymers like polyethylene, polyester and polyvinyl chloride. People could be ingesting about 216 particles per year via sea salt.

Every year 120 billion units of one-time use attractive packaging for cosmetics is produced worldwide. These small containers usually sit unused for years and are eventually thrown away in the thrash, and replaced by fresh items. Some have the recycling logo which is a triangle of arrows on them, but these items are unlikely to be actually recycled.

Recycling helps but is far from enough. According to Green Peace plastic packaging is rarely recycled even if one does every thing right! Only 9% is actually remade into some thing usable. The main reason is that bottles and jars need to be cleaned thoroughly and stickers removed or they are rejected because they can contaminate batches of material sent for recyling. Bottles with metal as in a pump can not be processed. Dark coloured plastics such black can not be checked by sorters and therefore end up in landfills. In short, recyling is a business and only those items that can be recycled conveniently, easily and at a profit will be recycled. Lastly, recycling plastic downgrades it and most plastics can only be recycled once or twice and virgin plastic has to be added to make recycled plastic functional.

Recycled PET or rPET yarn is used for making clothes, even those worn by India’s cricket team! However there are safety concerns about the recycling process. The biggest centres are in Panipat, Ludhiana and Samana in Punjab, and a few in Gujarat.

Newlife, developed into fabric from discarded plastic bottles that are thrown away, is blended with recycled polyester. It requires less energy to produce than new polyester and is being utilised by famous fashion designers. Patagonia and Espirit were among the first, followed by Timberland, Speedo and G-Star and Levi’s Waste<Less denim range utilises 8 discarded plastic bottles (and food trays) for a pair of jeans. Adidas has swimwear made from ocean debris and fishing nets. Whereas the world’s second largest clothing retailer H&M has also come out with recycled shoreline plastic waste clothing as part of its Conscious Exclusive collection.

In 2018 researchers from the Swansea University in UK have successfully converted discarded plastic into hydrogen fuel which in turn could be used to run cars. Meanwhile plastic is being recycled to make fibre/clothing, bin liners/sacks, packaging, furniture, and there are plans to use it extensively in construction, asphalt roads and landscaping.

A 30 metre bicycle track made from 70% recycled plastic and the rest from polypropylene was opened in Zwolle, the Netherlands in September 2018. Closer home, some Municipalities in India also have plans to also utilise plastic for road building. A Chemistry Professor from the Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, Tamil Nadu has developed know how for road construction with single-use plastics.

In 2022, nearly 3 years after plastic was last used, the Pune Municipal Corporation road department in association with the solid waste management department, planned to revive the project. Around 4 to 6 kgs of plastic would be mixed with around 100 kgs of bitumen. It is called Polymer Modified Bitumen 40 (PMB-40). Meanwhile, some municipal corporations like Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had already made plastic reuse mandatory for road construction. It was not simply reusing waste plastic, but its use improved the stability, strength, fatigue life and other desirable properties of the bituminous mix and lead to improved longevity and pavement performance.

Shredded plastic had first been utilised for road construction in 2002 at Chennai with more than 13,000 kms being constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) rural roads programme.

In November 2015 the Government of India issued mandatory guidelines for using plastic along with bituminous mixes for road constructions. However by 2021 only about 700 kms of highways were paved with plastic.

Earlier, in 2019 the Airports Authority of India formulated an Environment Policy which included a ban on single-use plastic items at 34 airports handling one million passengers per annum.

E-commerce businesses had also been asked by government to find a way to recycle the plastic materials they use for packing their despatches.

The plastic annually generated in some states and the recycling units were documented by the Central Pollution Control Board for 2017-18:

Lakh tonnes Re-cycling Units

Uttar Pradesh  2.06  133
Gujarat 2.69  882
Madhya Pradesh 0.61 71
Punjab 0.54 144
Nagaland 0.14 6
Odisa  0.12 20

A study by the University of Newcastle in Australia concluded that each one of us may be ingesting around 5 grams of plastic per week because one-third of waste plastic ends up in water. India ranked 3rd with 82.4% tap water containing over 4 plastic fibres per 500 ml.

In March 2019 at the United Nations Environment Assembly, Nairobi the role of plastic in contaminating the oceans was highlighted at the summit. In view of the fact that the world produced more than 300 million tonnes of plastics annually, and there are at least five trillion plastic pieces floating in our oceans the UN wanted individual countries to sign up to significantly reducing plastic production including a phasing out of single-use plastics by 2030 – a goal inspired by the 2015 Paris Agreement on voluntary reductions of carbon emissions.

Researchers from North Western University, USA have developed a new method of up-cycling single-use plastics into high quality liquid products such as motor oils, lubricants, detergents and cosmetics. The catalytic method was described in the journal ACS Central Science in 2019.

In view of the indispensability and ubiquity of plastics in today’s era, BWC feels that all we can and should do, is try to lessen their use where ever and when ever possible. A first small and easy step would be to pledge never to use a plastic straw to drink from a bottle or glass. And last but not least, be extremely careful and make sure never to litter plastic any where – in urban, rural or forest areas, on land or in water.

Last, but not least, it is worth keeping in mind that in April 2023 amid growing “greenwashing” claims of companies about their products using “biodegradable plastic” the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) announced that as of now there was no 100% biodegradable plastic in India. The government gave certificates only to “compostable plastic” manufacturers which was quite different.

World Environment Day 2023 highlighted the Perils of Plastics and the campaign called for collective, transformative action on a global scale to reduce and replace plastics. It was stated that more than 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year, half of which is designed to be used only once. Of that less than 10% is recycled. An estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in lakes, rivers and seas. A resolution had been adopted in 2022 at the UN Environment Assembly to develop a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, with the ambition to complete the negotiations by the end of 2024. The instrument is based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic.

Page last updated on 13/01/24