What’s bad for Earth, is bad for humans, too

April 10th, New Indian Express: ECOLOGIC- Pavitra Sriprakash, the Chief Designer and Director of Shilpa Architects writes on the impact of environmental pollutants on personal health.

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Ecologic April 9thWorld Health Day was celebrated recently. As many blogs were talking about mindful eating and other aspects of well-being, let me talk about personal health and our planet. It seems too large a problem for any individual to solve passively from their homes and cities. For the longest time, no one could easily wrap their heads around climate change and its effects on the world. But when simply told: ‘what is good for you, is also good for the planet,’ the message seems to make some sense.

A lot gets written about the oceans and marine life when thinking of climate change. Junk thrown on land somehow winds up in the seas. Statisticians estimate that over 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently litter the oceans, and there are many circulating ocean garbage patches. The largest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California. It has now reached a mammoth 80,000 tonnes, which is 4-16 times more than previous calculations. Some of that plastic debris were manufactured in 1977 and are over 40 years old. Surprisingly, they still look like they can be used! This massive accumulation is alone equivalent to the weight of 500 jumbo jets!

While the effects of plastic litter on marine life seems obvious, it is important to understand the deeper effects of such seemingly far removed things to human health. If left to circulate, plastic waste will impair our ecosystems, health and economies. Those in Chennai who take part in Turtle activities often caution the general public about the dangerous effects of beach litter on the lives of young turtle mothers that come to lay eggs on our shores. Due to its size and color, animals confuse the plastic for food, and often eat them. Surface feeding sea turtles are the ones at greatest risk. They also get entangled in the plastic nets which physically traps the creatures and sometimes even kills them.

Scientists from Newcastle University discovered that every single crustacean surveyed at the bottom of the Mariana Trench which is 11 km deep in the Pacific Ocean, had man-made fibres in their stomachs and debris in its body. Once ingested it becomes part of the ‘marine food web.’ Through a process called bioaccumulation, chemicals in plastics enter the body of the animal feeding on the plastic, and as the feeder becomes prey, the chemicals will pass to the predator, making their way up the food chain that includes humans.

This is an example of ‘what is bad for the planet is bad for humans too’! Technologies to recover plastic litter and upcycle them are commercially unproven and costly. Pyrolysis, a process involving catalytic degradation of plastic waste at very high temperature in the absence of oxygen, holds promise. The resulting gases are condensed to recover liquid fuels like kerosene, petrol and diesel. For over a year now, 45-year-old Satish, a long-time resident of Hyderabad, has been involved in turning ‘dead’ plastic, into usable fuel. But why pollute and then clean up? So this year on World Health Day, pledge for the health of you and your family. In the end it will have a great bearing on the planet as well —stay healthy, stay happy!

About the author

Pavitra Sriprakash (@pavisriprakash), the Director and Chief Designer of Shilpa Architects, is an Architectt, Urban Designer, Dancer and Artist. She writes a weekly sustainability column for The New Indian Express titled ECOLOGIC.