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Microplastic Contamination Busters: Unsung Heroes

Seshadri Ramkumar, Texas Tech University, USA

Microplastic and plastic pollution is affecting food chain, ground water levels and ecosystem. Plastic pollution can be a positive opportunity for fiber, processing and packaging sectors. From a remote village in the deep south of India to the pristine beaches of Costa Rico, slowly and rightly, people are realizing the ill effects of micro plastic contamination in their environment.

In the past few decades, textile industry had to focus its attention towards remedial measures for waste water discharge and the current microplastic contamination in the marine environment due to synthetic fibers seems to be a tough task to handle. A concerted effort is needed among public, consumers, government and the manufacturing industry to tackle this growing problem.

Azhvarthirunagari (Azhvai), a remote village on the banks of perennial river Thamirabharani in the deep south of India has come to realize the plastic pollution in a hard way. Being situated at the delta of a perennial river, which used to be richly fertile with rice and banana cultivation few years back, is feeling the pinch of ground water depletion. Single-use plastic materials thrown over a period of decade or so serve as an impermeable barrier for the rain water to drip through the ground. Villagers have come to understand this situation recently and have taken the situation in their own hands to find solutions. They have formed, “Azhvai People Welfare Association” and are effectively utilizing new communication tools like WhatsApp to hold people and local government accountable. Life has started improving ever since the need for collective efforts and raising a shared voice have started to happen. For the first time, recently, the association convinced a local coffee shop owner to start using multi-use packaging material instead of single use polyethylene bags. This news was received with a fanfare invoking supportive feedback among the agrarian community. It is not an easy decision for a small coffee stall in a society depending on agriculture to make this decision; but it is a laudable task.

In speaking to this scribe, Mr. M. Ponnusamy, of Azhvai People Welfare Association said, “villagers started to realize that polyethylene and thin plastic debris dumped on the canal and river banks block water seeping through the ground, which they found affects the ground water level. Agrarian society like us should care for Mother Nature as we depend on it for our livelihood.” As a small step, they are creating awareness on the ill effects of plastic contamination and they are happy that the village is setting itself as a model among surrounding villages to avoid single-use plastics.

Recently, the state of Tamilnadu in India, where the village Azhvarthirunagari is situated, has made a policy to ban single-use plastics effective January 1, 2019. Due to immense importance for cost-effective and reliable supply of packaging materials, only milk, oil and medicinal packaging are exempt from this ban. Some 10,000 miles apart, Costa Rica, whose economy depends on tourism is taking proactive measures to preserve its beaches and biodiversity from the plastic pollution. Twenty five percent of Costa Rica is designated as protected natural area.

David Robledo, a research scholar at Lubbock, Texas-based Texas Tech University is concerned about the environment in heritage economies like Costa Rico. He is focusing his attention to create awareness among public and politicians on science-based decision making to counter microplastic and plastic contamination. As an environmentalist and a technical communicator, he views, simple and timely communication is the first step towards addressing this issue. “General awareness on this plastic pollution doesn’t even exist,” said Robledo.

While stark images of beautiful sea birds ingested with plastic mess get due attention and emotional outpouring, pollution in the mainland several hundred miles away is the root cause of the problem, so alerting the negative effects of these problems should be the first order of business. General public and industry have an opportunity to be good stewards in protecting the ecosystem and should work towards finding reliable cost-effective solutions. Government regulations including subsidies to buy green products can be considered.

Particularly, textile industry, which has recently focused its attention on green manufacturing can benefit from the plastic pollution issue. Chennai, India-based WellGro Tech, a technology company is doing its best to come-up with biodegradable and sustainable products to counter an important environmental problem—oil spill.

Oil spill in sea and land is a health hazard and affects economy. WellGro Tech has recently launched biodegradable oil absorbent products, which are themselves nonpolluting being natural products, while at the same time tackle a serious environmental hazard. “Using plastic materials to counter ecosystem’s threat doesn’t make sense. Biodegradable materials, which do not add to the existing environmental issues are the go to materials and hence we focus on these earth friendly materials,” said Venkatakrishnan Ramanujam, President of WellGro Tech. Creating awareness at grass root levels, concerted effort by stakeholders in coming-up with alternate solutions via various mechanisms such as support for R & D in biomaterials, subsidies for the manufacturing industry as well as consumers are some initial steps to counter the threat.

Glad to know that that positive efforts such innovation in biomaterials in small technology companies and awareness creation that not only happens in the storied halls of ivory towers in developed economies, but even in rural communities are ongoing. Interesting feature is that these institutions have realized the problem early on. Awareness has begun, and so natural fiber and other manufacturing sectors should go on a high gear to find cost-effective solutions for this immediate challenge faced by the humanity.

Surely these are unsung heroes in the fight against an emerging environmental problem.




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