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Plastic Contamination Not Just a Cotton Problem

Plastic Contamination Not Just a Cotton Problem

Plastic pollution and contamination in the cotton industry is a serious issue, and steps are being taken to educate and help resolve the problem. But microplastic and plastic pollution is also impacting the food chain, groundwater levels and the ecosystem around the world, from a remote village in the deep south of India to the pristine beaches of Costa Rica.

Over the past few decades, the textile industry had to focus its attention towards remedial measures for wastewater discharge. The current microplastic contamination in the marine environment from 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.

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Azhvarthirunagari (Azhvai), a remote village on the banks of the river Thamirabharani in the deep south of India, has come to realize the impact of plastic pollution in a hard way. Situated at the delta of a perennial river which used to be richly fertile with rice and banana cultivation a few years ago, the village is feeling the pinch of groundwater depletion. Single-use plastic materials discarded over a decade or so now serve as an impermeable barrier for rainwater to seep into the ground.

Villagers have come to understand this problem and have taken the situation into their own hands to find solutions. They have formed the “Azhvai People Welfare Association” and are effectively utilizing new communication tools like WhatsApp to hold people and the local government accountable. Life has started to improve since the collective efforts and shared voices have started to happen. 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 fanfare and 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.

Mr. M. Ponnusamy of the 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. An agrarian society like ours 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 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 enacted a policy to ban single-use plastics effective January 1, 2019. Due to the immense importance for a cost-effective and reliable supply of packaging materials, only milk, oil and medicinal packaging are exempt from this ban.

Some 10,000 miles away, Costa Rica – whose economy depends on tourism – is taking proactive measures to preserve its beaches and biodiversity from plastic pollution, designating 25% of the country as protected natural area.

David Robledo, a research scholar at Texas Tech University, is concerned about the environment in heritage economies like Costa Rico. He is focusing his attention to create awareness among the 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 garner attention and emotional outpouring, pollution in the mainland several hundred miles away is the root cause of the problem. Alerting the negative effects of these problems should be the first order of business.

The 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.

The textile industry in particular, which has recently focused its attention on green manufacturing, can benefit from the plastic pollution issue. Chennai, India-based WellGro Tech, is working to develop biodegradable and sustainable products to counter an important environmental problem – oil spills.

Oil spills in sea and on land are health hazards that impact the economy. WellGro Tech has recently launched all natural, biodegradable oil absorbent products to help tackle this serious environmental hazard.

“Using plastic materials to counter the ecosystem’s threat doesn’t make sense,” said Venkatakrishnan Ramanujam, president of WellGro Tech. “Biodegradable materials which do not add to the existing environmental issues are the go-to materials, and we focus on these earth-friendly materials.”

Creating awareness at grassroot levels, concerted efforts by stakeholders to develop alternate solutions such as support for R & D in biomaterials, and subsidies for both the manufacturing industry and consumers are some initial steps to help counter the threat.

It is reassuring to know that that positive efforts such as innovation in biomaterials in small technology companies and increasing awareness not only happens in the storied halls of ivory towers in developed economies, but even in small rural communities. These institutions have realized the problem early, and awareness has begun. Now, the natural fiber and other manufacturing sectors should work quickly to find cost-effective solutions for this immediate challenge faced throughout the world.

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