Many years ago, if you got a wound, you probably had to suffer the infection, rely on your body to either fight it, or die. Millions were wiped out of existence due to this process, since there wasn’tenough therapeutic know-how to help them. Medicine developed from strengthening of the knowledge that some plant products/ chemicals could help alter bodily systems to fight a disease. We went from rubbing pastes made of leafs on the wounds, to using electric shock to revive a dying heart.
It is a fact as common as the earth revolving around the sun, that the burden of surpluswaste thatwe have inflicted upon the earth is something we cannot undo for generations to come, even if we started trying today.Amongst this, the particularly dangerous is the bio-medical waste, which could be infectious, chemically hazardous and above all, non- biodegradable. With outreach of medical services far and wide, a major drawback that developed was the accumulation of this new type of waste,a huge part of it being single- use plastics, which demanded special efforts to dispose off safely.
MEDICAL PLASTICS: THE GOOD, THE BAD
When mass production of plastics began in the 1940s, it quickly permeated into all facets of daily life. We had to come up with new ways to keep disease transmission to a minimum. As metal syringes began to corrode due to repeated boiling and caused more harm rather than good, we came up with plastic syringes. They were much cheaper in terms of production and distribution cost, so could be used for one patient and thrown away. This ‘use and throw’ concept revolutionized medicine, where once upon a time a simple used gauze cloth also had to be washed and reused.Single use plastics were lightweight, durable, cost effective, and in accordance with the sterility- requirements of medical equipment. Catheters, IV tubes, suction tips, dialysis tubes, IV blood bags, radiographic films, even gloves began to be manufactured in a large scale to facilitate infection- free and hassle- free healthcare. Lives of many that were previously at risk of hospital- acquired infection were saved. Care givers were pardoned of a huge burden,so much of time and effort that mostly went in cleaning up, drying or disinfecting, was saved and they could now provide better, more dedicated service to the sick.
As life with the newest and most popular product ‘plastic’ continued, nearlyeveryone on the planet got exposed to it at some or the other level. It is believed that apart from a few pockets of completely isolated tribes, every human on the planet has benefitted from its invention. However, this situation implies that in today’s plastics-enabled society, there are no ‘control groups’ to be found to study the effects environmental exposure of plastic constituents has on human health.
Scientists claim that the chemicals in plastic products are causinghealth problems like early sexual maturation in children, dermatological issues, infertility, and even cancer due to constant low- level exposure over many years. Apart from these, the day- to day life of people is also being altered, and changes in people’s behavioral patterns have been linked to plastic chemicals exposure. So plastic is the culprit for not only the obvious, blatant pollution that it causes, but also for seeping into our body’s systems and damaging them.
MEDICAL PLASTICS: THE UGLY
Around 30% of all medical waste is plastic and since they are mostly single- use items, their safe disposal entails disinfection followed by either burying underground, or incineration (the practice of burning waste). Regulations for waste management dictate that adequate disinfection of medical plastics is a must before exposing them to the environment, but this is barely followed in practice. Most hospitals have waste management agencies hired to dispose their waste, and nobody is really checking how said agencies are carrying out their job. As a result, not only is the potentially hazardous waste not being disinfected properly, it is also being dumped in huge numbers into landfills and oceans, corrupting the ecosystem of these places.
Microplastics and drugs disposed into the oceans havealtered the regular diet of marine animals, which tend to confuse small sized polymers with plankton, and this has brought down their lifespan significantly. Landfills are filling up fast with these infectious wastes, endangering not only animals and humans around these areas, but also the water bodies and ultimately, the food chain. According to regulations, most medical waste is supposed to be incinerated after processing. However, burning of plastic in itself is a huge environmental hazard, since it creates many noxious and carcinogenic gases, polluting the air and adding to the greenhouse effect.
The ‘Syringe tide’incident of 1987 is an example of the tragic effects medical plastics can have on the planet, when kilos of discarded syringes and other medical wastes washed up on the shore at New Jersey, USA. Not only did itcostthe locals loads of revenue loss from tourists, it also took months and months to clean up.The incident was as strange as a fictional dystopian story, and was referenced in many popular TV shows (The Simpsons) and pop songs (Billy Joel- We didn’t start the fire).
The Coronavirus pandemic has put us in a lot of medical distress, and agencies worldwide are trying to make ends meet to minimize casualty. A whole lot of plastic waste from personal protective equipment (PPEs), testing kits, sanitizer bottles, ICUs is being generated at a ten-fold rate than before, and all this is reflecting on the environment. The priority of governments during this time is obviously containing the infection and safeguarding vulnerable sections of society, and as a result, single- use plastic production has increased, recycling programs have been put at pause, and safe waste disposal practices have become lax.
Mahatma Gandhi said that ‘the earth has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed’. This was said at a time when environment conservation wasn’t an eminent issue and it is ironical that years after Bapu warned us, many governments around the world are yet to acknowledge the worsening state of the planet. We have been misled by the capitalistic farcethat irrespective of the impact our selfish actions are causing the environment, we must keep producing and consuming.
Plastics and non-biodegradable items were introduced into medicine with the primary aim of limiting diseases like HIV. It is certainly valid to ask the question,‘why did the solution for increased disease transmission change focus from better research in sterilization practices/ technology to the lazy and irresponsible alternative of ‘use and throw’? Was it the need of the times,or was it a mixed bag of factors like cheap investment,fast production andmass popularity of plasticsbrought about by corporations who would ultimately make big bucks if this ‘use and throw’ experiment of theirs became successful?
Capitalism hasn’t always proved to be the best option for environmental concerns. We can try and use one less disposable straw every day, but the global climate crisis will continue if major policy changes aren’t made with regard to mass plastic production.