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Plastics in a time of COVID: An interview with Dr Vijay Habbu

Dr. Vijay Habbu, plastics interviewee. Health Issues India in partnership with SPAG Asia hosted the webinar “In Times of COVID-19, Can Medical Care Be Delivered Without Using Plastics?” One of the participants was Dr Vijay Habbu, Polymer Scientist and Adjunct Professor, Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai.

In advance of the webinar, I spoke with Dr Habbu to discuss this important topic. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. If you want to watch the webinar, you can do so here.

  • Plastics are an environmental concern. At the same time, plastics are integral to the functioning of our health systems. How do we balance these two realities? 

We are the crossroads of our understanding of plastics. We need to understand a simple fact: prior to the arrival of plastics on the scene, traditional materials such as wood, glass, paper, textiles, and metals were known, even before Christ. Plastics came much later – at the beginning of the last century, when Bakelite was invented in 1907. 

In mankind’s understanding of this material, plastics do not have the same benefits which others have – which is time. We are used to other materials, how to make them, use them, and dispose them. This ability to understand the entire life cycle of these other materials and then take wise steps to use them gainfully and dispose them responsibly has not been available to plastics, because they have been with us since just over 110 years ago. 

When Bakelite was invented, we didn’t know exactly what it was. Once we gained more understanding over the next few years, it gave rise to a whole host of industry and research. Hundreds of plastics came on the scene, with different applications for different reasons. And so, plastics came into our lives so rapidly and at a scale unforeseen for any other materials. All other materials came gradually. 

  • It can be difficult to inject the public consciousness with knowledge of what plastics are and how important they are to everyday life. Is this a reason it’s been easy to demonise them and, given the relatively recent timeframe plastics have been with us, plastic pollution is perhaps emphasised at a level that other types of adverse effects from materials are not (arguably heavy metal poisoning)?

This goes back to my point that plastics have been with us for a relatively short period of time. We haven’t had the benefit of understanding plastics as a material as we have had with others, such as metals (where we thought we understood how to deal with them in their poisonous state). The same kind of insulation from fear isn’t enjoyed by plastics. 

  • In the relatively short period of time plastics have been with us and the rapid adoption of their widespread use in commerce and industry, we’ve also seen the rise of the environmentalist movement. Is that significant, such as in the context of maybe the way we sometimes overlook concerns such as heavy metal poisoning?

Absolutely correct. This is an interesting point to consider. With the emergence of the social consciousness and the coincidence of the fairly emergent status of plastic on the scene and their penetration into our lives, they have become an easily visible target.  Plastics actually have the least environmental footprint compared to other materials. 

  • Yes, and it’s not to say that the plastics industry is encouraging people to pollute with plastics. 

Plastics lend themselves amiably to recycling. When I say plastics came rapidly into our lives, they came into all our aspects of life – agriculture, medicine, sports, transportation, civil engineering, etc. They entered so rapidly and into so many spheres because of their advantages: they are chemically resistant, durable, lightweight, affordable, recyclable, can be shaped into different forms, and versatile. 

Some of these benefits have come back to haunt plastics. Because they are cheap, people litter them without a second’s thought. Because they are durable, they take a long time to decompose. And because they have been around for a short period of time, we do not know how to use them and dispose of them, responsibly. Humans have not learnt to use it and enjoy the benefits of the material but, for example, do not bat an eyelid at throwing plastic packaging away. This is because that kind of education has not been drilled into their conscious mind. 

That will happen with time when they see the disaster and the effects of irresponsible disposal. Littering, for example, happens because of human behaviour. Then urban bodies and administrators haven’t geared up for collecting plastic waste and treating it responsibly. 

  • Some have called for plastics to become a thing of the past. After the COVID-19 crisis, where we’ve been reminded of the role plastics play in everyday life and in medical terms, do you see a re-evaluation of plastics and, if so, what would that re-evaluation look like?

The coronavirus crisis is unprecedented, particularly for our generation and all of us. We haven’t seen a reversal of human evolution like this – human evolution was always to step out of your dwellings and engage in industry and commerce. Here is a situation asking us exactly to do the reverse and a time to reflect on things. 

There will certainly be a re-evaluation, and I can speak from the Indian experience which I don’t think will start from experiences elsewhere. The same materials (plastics) that, until coronavirus hit us, states after states in India were bringing out restrictions on their use 

Prime Minister Modi actually made a well-tempered appeal for  phasing out single-use plastics. That was a much-needed call as what he says always gets a lot of traction. What he said brought a focus on the problem of plastic littering. He said very clearly that the utility of plastics cannot be denied, but since some of these plastic items are creating more nuisance than value, we should phase them out. Some were worried he would ban everything, but he actually tempered the debate and was not referring to plastics as a category of materials. 

When coronavirus came, because of the scale of the problem, the only material that could respond at an equal scale was plastics. And the same state governments who went after plastics were asking for plastics. 

After the lockdown, there were problems of migrant labourers and daily wagers, living hand to mouth in shanty towns or were stranded; students stationed in different states and stranded there; and evacuees from other countries. Of these, perhaps the biggest problem was for migrant labourers and daily wagers. The Government and several other organisations rose to the occasion to provide relief materials — supplied in plastics – what else? 

  • And in the context of personal protective equipment (PPEs), we’re crying out for plastics in effect.

Exactly. There are the frontline workers – the doctors, nursing staff, administrative staff, policemen who have to patrol the streets to enforce the lockdown, etc. who need PPEs. And the same propylene non-woven material used to make the bags they called to be banned is what face masks are made of. PPEs, the face masks, the face shields, the overalls, many parts of the ventilators, saline drips, intravenous tube, blood bags – all of these things are made of plastics. 

Activists say, ‘did we not live in a time without plastics?’ But that is where we need to ponder and educate people because plastics are uniquely functional. No single material has these advantages. Coronavirus and plastics have some similarity,  in that we don’t know everything about their lifecycles (as for coronavirus we only know so much after three or four months). But coronavirus is an attacker. Plastics is a provider.

So now people are looking at plastics in a different way and, to that extent, the narrative is changing. 

The demonization and vilification has gone down. In my opinion, that’s the best way a dialogue can happen in a tranquil manner and people can be made to realise that these are useful materials but, if behaviour towards disposing is not responsible, we will be in a situation with no materials to deliver relief or survival materials. The Government and the plastics industry should use this as a fulcrum and generate the conversation in a healthy way so it is not a skewed narrative. 

Read more of Health Issues India’s exclusive interviews with thought leaders here.

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