Financial Times

Use a polythene bag and save a tree
By W.A. Wijewardena

The students in my class had listened to a guest speaker from a foundation for protecting the environment on the current polythene menace. “Polythene adds to environmental pollution,” the speaker had announced. “It doesn’t bio-degrade. As a result, it accumulates as a solid waste on the surface of the earth. It has a number of environmental issues. It clogs drains and causes floods in the cities. It helps mosquitoes to breed by collecting pools of water. It also makes the environment ugly. So the government’s recent ban of polythene with 20 microns or less was a correct decision,” he had declared to an emotionally driven audience of students. By the time he had finished his lecture, practically everyone had been enlisted as bastions of the anti-polythene campaign.

In the class the following day, they wanted to discuss the issue. They briefed me on what the guest speaker had said about polythene and wanted my opinion on the subject. I asked them a question; “If there’s a public procession hailing polythene, who would go at the head of the procession?” I asked them. I got different answers. Some said polythene manufacturers. Some said politicians. For some others, it was students who use polythene for decorating funerals of other students. But, none was able to give the correct answer.

“They may also go in the procession,” I said. “But the one who would go at the head would be the one who gets the highest benefit from polythene. That would be the one who saves its life because of polythene. In that sense, it’s the trees which have the greatest incentive to promote polythene. That’s because, if not for polythene, trees would be cut, chopped, pulped and made into paper to meet the demand for wrapping or carrying materials. So the motto is ‘use a polythene bag and save a tree’. Therefore, if trees are candid, they should be eternally grateful to polythene.”

Students appeared to be surprised by my response. They would have wanted me to confirm what the guest speaker had said. But, now they are hearing a completely different view on polythene. “Why are you against polythene?” I continued my probe. “Because polythene isn’t bio-degradable” One student answered.

I shook my head in disagreement. “No,” I said. “Polythene is also degradable. You can test it by burying some polythene in the backyard and examining it after one year. But it takes a longer time to decompose than some others we use, for example, paper or cloth. If your objection is on the longer time period, then tell me out of the following products we use, which one has the longer decomposing span. Polythene, concrete, glass, ceramic, steel?” I saw their mouths gaping and eyes bulging in amazement. But, one student started to answer the question. “Of course, everything in the list takes a longer time to decompose than polythene. Perhaps, thousands of years or even longer. Archaeologists have discovered ceramic products dating back to even ten thousand years,” he said.

“That’s precisely the point. There’re bigger culprits that would pollute the environment than polythene. But no one even bats an eyelid against them. So it’s unfair to single out polythene and castigate it as the greatest polluter of the world,” I said. They now became interested in the subject and wanted to know more. “There’s no one in this world who isn’t helped by polythene. Farmers can carry water to far away arid places on polythene covered canals. Doctors can use polythene materials to store rare drugs and also blood. Traders can cover their merchandise with polythene. Students can decorate their meetings with polythene. Even dead people use polythene. That’s to cover dead bodies and decorate funerals,” I continued.

“So the discovery of polythene was a real revolution. It has helped modern civilisation to go for greater heights, like the discovery of the clay pot some 20,000 years ago or wheel some 10,000 years ago. Polythene is a good and people are ready to pay a positive price to get it for their use. Its production cost is very much less, because it comes from a by-product of the petro-chemical industry. If it were not discovered, the world would still be limping forward with old model raw materials available.”

“But, we really have a problem, when polythene accumulates in the environment,” one student protested. “Yes, but it’s an aesthetical issue,” I said. “The answer to that question is not banning polythene which is a real servant of mankind. We should have better polythene management systems and ways of recycling polythene. So, go for that solution rather than depriving mankind of the services of a very useful servant,” I said.

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