Are we at sea on marine plastic pollution?

November 11, 2020 5:30 AM

Verifiable traction on marine plastics beyond the rhetoric has also been challenging, owing to the scarcity of India-specific data and action-oriented research

Currently, India is considered the twelfth-largest source of marine litter and is projected to become the fifth-largest by 2025.Currently, India is considered the twelfth-largest source of marine litter and is projected to become the fifth-largest by 2025.

By Karan Mangotra & Kaushik Chandrasekhar

The global Marine plastic Pollution footprint is estimated to be 8-10 million tonnes annually—equivalent to dumping one truck of garbage into the ocean every minute. A rough estimate suggests that close to 150 million tonnes (mt) of plastics have already polluted our oceans, and most of it originates from land (that is, it is not dumped into the ocean directly from vessels etc). Plastic packaging accounts for more than 62% of all items (including non-plastics) collected in international coastal clean-up initiatives. The number looks worse with the World Economic Forum estimating that 32% of all single-use packaging escapes collection systems.

Currently, India is considered the twelfth-largest source of marine litter and is projected to become the fifth-largest by 2025. The Ganga has been documented as one of the top-five rivers dumping plastics into oceans. India, as per 2017-18 estimates, consumes 16.5 mt of plastic annually, 43% of which was towards the manufacture of single-use plastic material. The Covid-19 outbreak has exacerbated this situation, with the pandemic demanding the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as suits, masks and gloves that are often discarded in unscientific ways. With our country generating close to 101 tonnes/ day of Covid-19-related biomedical waste, the need to handle this stream of waste has grown significantly.

It is imperative to understand that plastic use has become an integral part of our lives. However, their end-use management has lagged usage and waste generation levels. Mismanagement of plastic waste generated in coastal cities and urban centres are leading to this reaching the water bodies. Land-based sources are recognised as the main cause (up to 80% of total marine debris) of marine plastic pollution. This takes the focus back to systemic issues such as our failure to curb plastic waste through source segregation, strengthening material recovery facilities and devising market-based business models to incentivise diversion. The common leakage routes, as documented by a National Productivity Council (NPC) study, are litter accumulated and carried via open drains into rivers and water bodies. Other upstream routes contributing significantly to this cause include waste directly dumped into water bodies and waste from dump yards carried into local rivers or lakes. The report further documents that this litter commonly comprises MLP, polybags, milk pouches, noodle pouches, detergent packets, disposable cutlery, shampoos, toothpaste and food takeaway containers.

The plastic situation has presented itself as a hanging sword. However, we are yet to gain a common understanding, both domestically and internationally. Single-use plastics, today, are a common part of the political discourse; however, the implementation of their phase-out has been marred by the lack of a common definition that could unite the states for this cause. The definition assumes greater significance as this would impact multiple stakeholders, including citizens and industry, thereby, impacting the use of specific types of plastics. The success of this transition would then also be governed by the availability of affordable alternatives to fill voids created. Verifiable traction on marine plastics, beyond mere rhetoric, has also been challenging, owing to the scarcity of India-specific data and action-oriented research, making it even more challenging for policymakers.

Addressing the ‘bulk of issue’ by curbing land-based sources of marine litter must be the initial focus. Understanding this linkage would provide a holistic approach towards addressing the issue. While phasing out of single-use plastics clearly established a political consensus, a clear roadmap involving the cities needs to be drawn up to achieve the same. This could begin with arriving at a common understanding and definition agreed upon internationally. The understanding would then need to trickle to the lower government tiers in the form of bye-law inclusions to guide the cities to phase out single-use plastics by 2022.

Institutional framework towards achieving the common goal would need to be chalked out and streamlined so that relevant government bodies could work effectively towards achieving the goal. To address this intertwined complex issue, a robust multipronged structured approach still remains the call of the hour.

Mangotra is associate director, Earth Science and Climate Change, and Chandrasekhar is associate fellow, Centre for Waste Management, TERI. Views are personal

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