Thursday, May 27, 2010

Plastic woes

When considering Trivandrum’s (or any other city’s) rapid development and expansion, it is hardly surprising that numerous retailers are colonising any available spaces to sell their products. And with India being one of the biggest consumers of plastics/ polythenes, it is not unanticipated to find the plastic menace rearing up its ugly head.

Matters were quite different less than two decades ago. One was expected to utilise a shopping bag (usually durable) when commencing on the customary and/or sporadic shopping expeditions. And retailers, in turn, used old newspapers to pack the products. Bags were either of paper or jute, and those tantalising plastic bags with pink, blue, yellow, and white hues could be bought only for a price.

The past morphing into the present has resulted in many changes, one of which is that these plastic bags are now generously supplied by all retailers (and, usually, for no charge) - even the fishmonger. It has become such an integral part of the average existence, that I am met with surprised and sneering looks when I insist on the vendors placing the purchases into my large shopping bag instead of using their plastic bags.

Manufacturers of these plastic bags are quick to insist that these don’t cause any environmental problems. Furthermore, banning these bags would jeopardize the livelihood of many workers. Retailers are also in the same bandwagon for these bags provide an affordable marketing and publicity solution. Surely, there is no one who hasn’t noticed the glaring logo of Burberry Prorsum on that silver (or gold) bag held proudly by a WAG? And isn’t it common to find consumers carrying plastic bags which advertise sales at the large department stores (including John Lewis/Peter Jones)?

Denying the environmental problems caused by plastic bags is akin to insisting that the sun revolves around the earth. Firstly, it is difficult and expensive to recycle plastic bags. Secondly, being non-biodegradable, these bags take a loooong time to degrade (apparently 300-1000 years). Even then, these degraded pieces are toxic and would contaminate the area in which they are found. Fourthly, animals trying to swallow plastic bags are common sights- and the conclusion is inevitable. The plastic bags continue to dodge one when walking in any street- in the gutters, on the road, amongst the undergrowth, and on the rivers and streams (and it seems as if residents have assumed that these are the ideal sites for discarding plastics and other wastes). Another common sight is plastic being burned- should I elaborate more on the composition of these noxious fumes and the effects which it will have on human health?

I understand that the state has now stipulated a minimum thickness of plastic bags (around 30-50 microns) - but this still doesn’t curtail the use of plastic bags. The best solution would be if everyone would reuse the same bags instead of absent-mindedly accepting more at the various shops - and if each one of us refuses to a plastic/polythene bag each day, this amounts to refusing 365 plastic bags per annum! Another option would be to use a jute shopping bag- spacious and hardy.

If there is no improvement, the retailers could be pressurised to institute a hefty charge for the plastic bags (something along the lines of Rs 15 per bag)- and this, surely, will reap benefits.

Or perhaps the solution is along the lines of what has been so effectively implemented by the Municipal Council of Nagercoil (in Tamil Nadu)- anyone using/manufacturing flimsy plastic bags faces hefty fines (the minimum is Rs 25; the maximum is around Rs 5000). I recommend something much more heftier.

Image: (photographer:tibetanelements)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gross forest cover loss

We are mostly aware of deforestation occurring in third world countries. Which is exactly why I must convey the findings of a particularly illuminating paper, Quantification of global gross forest cover loss, by Matthew Hansen, Stephen Stehman, and Peter Potapov of South Dakota State University and State University of New York (SUNY), published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 2010).

The researchers used satellite imagery to quantify the Gross Forest Cover Loss, GFCL, defined as ‘the area of forest cover removed because of any disturbance, including both natural and human-induced causes’ from 2000 to 2005 (‘forest cover’ is specified as 25% (or greater) of canopy closure for trees over 5 metres tall).

To summarise the findings:
Firstly, during this time period, 3% (1011,000 km2 ) of the world’s forest disappeared, which relates as a loss of 3.1% from the estimated total forested area in 2000 (32688,000 km2).

Secondly, amongst the biomes, the
boreal experienced the largest GFCL (where 60% was due to fire), followed by the humid tropical (mostly due to clearing for agriculture and plantations, especially in Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia), dry tropical (again, due to clearing for agriculture, and mostly in Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay), and temperate biomes.

Thirdly, amongst the continents, North America had the greatest GFCL (around 30%), followed by Asia and South America. Interestingly, Africa exhibited the least GFCL.

Fourthly, amongst the seven countries which has over 100,000 km2 of forests (Russia, Brazil, US, Canada, China, Indonesia, and Congo), Brazil showed the largest GFCL (165,000 km2; of which 26000 km2 were rainforests and 7000 km2 were dry tropical forests) followed by Canada (160,000 km2).

Fifthly, the greatest proportional GFCL was exhibited by US, which lost more than 120,000 km2 (6% of its forest cover in 2000) mainly due to logging. Canada’s proportional forest loss was 5.2% of its forest cover, higher than Brazil’s. Of the remainder, Indonesia lost 3.6%, Russia lost 2.8%, China lost 2.3%, and DRC lost 0.6% of their respective forest covers.

There are some caveats with this otherwise illuminating study: it did not factor in forest gains during this time period. Secondly, the study period is from 2000-2005, and obviously is not indicative of what happened over the past half decade. It is also limited by its definition of forest cover. Yet, it does serve to remove some amount of misconceptions!
Hansen, M., Stehman, S., & Potapov, P. (2010). From the Cover: Quantification of global gross forest cover loss Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (19), 8650-8655 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0912668107