Plastic Pollution – The Great Threat to Environment & Ecosystem

Reading Time: 11 mins

Plastic Pollution is the accumulation of synthetic plastic products in the environment to the point where they create problems for wildlife and their habitats as well as for human populations.

In 1907, the invention of Bakelite brought about a revolution in the materials by introducing truly synthetic plastic resins into world commerce.

However, by the end of the 20th century, plastics have become persistent polluters of different environmental niches, from Mount Everest to the bottom of the sea.

Whether being mistaken for food by animals, flooding low-lying areas by clogging drainage systems, or simply causing considerable aesthetic damage, plastics have attracted increasing global attention as a large-scale pollutant.

Millions of tonnes of plastic enter the seas each year, choking whales and other creatures, much of it in Asia. Plastic pollution has been found across the globe, from the most remote oceanic islands to high Swiss peaks. Microplastics/Microbeads have now also been found in tap water and human food around the world, with unknown implications for health.

What is the magnitude of the plastic pollution problem?

  • For the first time, researchers have estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic being dumped into the oceans by 192 coastal countries in 2010.
  • Researchers have identified the top 20 countries that have dumped the most plastic waste into the oceans.
  • At the twelfth position, India is one of the worst performers. It has dumped up to 0.24 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year; the amount of mismanaged plastic waste per year is 0.6 million tonnes.
  • In the case of China, the No. 1 polluter, the coastal population sends up to 3.53 million tonnes of plastic waste into the oceans each year.
  • Annual input into the oceans is set to double by 2025.
  • Use of plastic bags has increased by 20 times in the past 50 years
  • Most plastic packaging is used only once then discarded.
  • One-third of all plastic packaging escapes collection systems.
  • 40 percent of plastics end up in landfills.
  • Only five percent of plastics are efficiently recycled
  • Plastics production will increase to 1.124 billion tonnes by 2050.
  • According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), if current pollution rates continue, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050, as globally, only 14% of plastics are recycled.
  • According to the UNEP report, Asia faces the highest environmental costs from plastic pollution because of the higher pollution intensity levels of manufacturing and a lack of adequate waste management facilities.
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What are the major causes of plastic pollution?

High usage: due to its qualities like easy Availability, Affordability, Manufacturability, Durability, and Discardability.

Urbanisation & Population growth = Increase in demand for cheaper & readily available materials.

  • Between 2001-2010 itself, more plastics have been made than any other plastic manufactured in history simply because of rapid urbanization and rising consumer demands.
  • In most urban areas, plastics form a greater part of the landfills and account for 80% of all the municipal solid waste.

Affordability:

  • As plastics are the cheapest and most affordable materials to manufacture, their production has tripled in recent decades to take care of the ever-rising consumer demands.
  • Due to this quality, plastic has been used to make almost every single utility including plastic water bottles, plastic cans, straws, plastic paper bags, packaging wrappers, carton linings, food containers, lids and the list goes on and on.

Reckless Disposal:

  • Plastic is among the easily disposed of items due to their lightweight and use period.
  • Take for example – plastic paper bags, wrappers, plastic water bottles, straws, and food containers. The use period of these items is very short and are called Single Use Plastics.
  • Therefore, after getting the essential item, most people don’t see the need for keeping the plastic that is remaining.

Slow decomposition rate:

  • Plastics take hundreds of years to decompose because they have strong chemical bonds that simply make them last.
  • The simplest plastics such as the ones used in grocery stores take at least 50 years to break down while the complex ones take between 100 and 600 years to decompose.
  • It means that as long as new plastics will continue to be manufactured, they will persist to exist throughout the planet contributing to plastic pollution.

Marine Shipping and fishing industry:

  • The shipping and fishing industry also contribute to plastic pollution, especially in the oceans.
  • Remote rural beaches tend to have plastic rubbish washed to the shores which come from the ships, sea accidents, and from the nets used for fishing which is usually made of plastic.
  • These plastics leak toxins into the water which affect marine wildlife in various ways and can also be ingested by the marine creatures.
  • Once in the water, the plastic debris takes years to decompose, adversely harming marine wildlife and even killing them when ingested.

Cosmetic & personal care industry

  • cosmetic and personal care industry that has introduced microplastics/microbeads (plastic particles of 5mm diameter or less) in products such as toothpaste and shower gels, damages the marine ecosystem by releasing toxins which eventually enters into the food chain.

What are the effects of Plastic pollution?

Whenever they are disposed of, they take hundreds of years to decompose and their continued stay in the environment does great harm. When burnt it pollutes the air when disposed of in the landfills it causes land pollution, and when dumped into the water it pollutes the waters eventually leading to other secondary impacts.

Air Pollution: Disposing of plastic waste by burning it in open-air pits releases harmful gases like furan and dioxin.

Soil pollution: Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic through landfill site, is linked to decreasing crop productivity, impacting food security, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, and other ailments. Plants continue to decline due to plastic chemical intoxication.

Marine ecosystem:

  • As per the report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), every year, plastic waste costs marine ecosystems $13 billion in damages.
  • The estimated 10-20 million tonnes of plastic waste that finds its way into the ocean – smothers coral reefs, routinely entangles marine wildlife, and more importantly, degrades into ‘microplastics’/’microbeads’ that transfer toxins into the food chain. Microplastics (or plastic particles of 5mm diameter or less) are ingested by creatures ranging from sea birds to mussels thus entering the food chain.
  • Bio-accumulation: Many persistent organic pollutants (for example, pesticides, PCBs, DDT, and dioxins) float around the oceans at low concentrations, but their hydrophobic nature concentrates them on the surface of plastic particles. Marine animals mistakenly feed on the microplastics, and at the same time ingest the toxic pollutants. chemicals accumulate in the animal tissues and then increase in concentration as the pollutants are transferred up to the food chain.
  • Every year Marine plastic gets trapped in the gyres (revolving water system in the world’s oceans) which breaks down into micro-plastic and becomes harmful for marine as well as human life. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean Gyre.
  • Hundreds of endangered marine creatures such as the sea turtles are lost on a yearly basis for having consumed pieces of plastic.

Health effects:

  • Plastics cause serious damage to human health such as cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues.
  • Plastic bags often provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests thus increase the transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria.
  • Plastic bags are often ingested by animals which mistakenly taken them for food due to which toxic chemicals enter the human food chain.

Social damage: The social damage continuously being inflicted is inestimable as every sphere of life get affected by it like tourism, recreation, business, the health of humans, animals, fish, and birds.

Economic cost:

  • The total economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem caused by plastic amounts to at least $13 billion every year.
  • Scattered plastics at the beaches or on dumpsites/towers/traffic lights/poles within cities usually portray a very bad picture of the respective regions and depict environmental insensitivity.
  • Winds may also carry the plastics to other areas, increasing plastic littering.
  • As a result, tourism to such areas is affected leading to loss of tourism revenue.
  • Furthermore, millions of money are spent annually to clean regions littered or affected by plastic pollution.

Natural Disaster: Encroachment and clogging of city drainage with plastic and solid waste often leads to suburban flooding. For example – Mumbai experience annual flooding like situation during monsoon season due to water clogging etc

What are some of the international initiatives against plastic litter?

The UNEP Global Programme of Action (UNEP/GPA):

  • It aims at preventing the degradation of the marine environment from land-based activities by facilitating the realization of the duty of States to preserve and protect the marine environment.
  • It was created through the Washington Declaration on Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, 1995.
  • It is unique in that it is the only global initiative directly addressing the connectivity between terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems.
  • The GPA secretariat has established three global multi-stakeholder partnerships: the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM), the Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) and the Global Wastewater Initiative (GWI).

The Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML): was launched in June 2012 at Rio + 20 in Brazil. It is a global partnership gathering international agencies, Governments, NGOs, academia, private sector, civil society and individuals to protect human health and the global environment by the reduction and management of marine litter as its main goal, through several specific objectives.

UN-led clean seas campaign

It was launched in 2017, with the aim of engaging governments, public, civil society and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic litter.

  • It contributes to the goals of the Global Partnership on Marine Litter and Global Programme of Action of UNEP.
  • The campaign is in consonance with SDG 12- sustainable consumption and production, SDG13- Climate Change, and SDG 14-Life below the water.
  • India is not a member country to Clean Seas campaign.

Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal: It aims at preventing and minimizing the generation of wastes including those ending up in the ocean. Much of the marine litter and microplastics found in the sea may be determined as ‘waste’ as defined under the Convention.

Stockholm Convention on POPs: It aims to protect human health and the environment from Persistent Organic Pollutants (organic chemicals that persist in the environment, bio-accumulate in humans and wildlife, have harmful effects and have the potential for long-range environmental transport). Plastics can adsorb POPs such as PCB, DDT and dioxins and these are frequently detected in marine plastic litter.

The Honolulu Strategy: It is a framework for a comprehensive and global collaborative effort to reduce the ecological, human health, and economic impacts of marine debris worldwide.

Ocean Cleanup Project

  • Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organisation which is developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastics.
  • It is directed at cleaning The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) which is a zone between Hawaii and California. About 1.8 Trillion pieces of plastic float the surface of the GPGP.

Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW)

  • Alliance to End Plastic Waste was founded in January 2019.
  • It is a nonprofit organization which includes companies from across the globe. From India, Reliance Industries is a part of the alliance.
  • It has committed over $1.0 billion with the goal of investing $1.5 billion over the next five years to help end plastic waste in the environment.

What are India’s initiatives?

Plastic Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, 2011

  • Increasing the minimum thickness of plastic carry bags from 40 microns to 50 microns. This would increase the cost and the tendency to provide free carry bags would come down.
  • Responsibility of local bodies: Rural areas are brought under the rules since plastic has reached rural areas as well. The gram sabhas have been given the responsibility for implementation.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility: Earlier, EPR was left to the discretion of the local bodies. For the first time, the producers and brand owners have been made responsible for collecting waste generated from their products.
  • Producers are to keep a record of their vendors to whom they have supplied raw materials for manufacturing. This is to curb manufacturing of these products in unorganised sector.
  • Responsibility of waste generator: All institutional generators of plastic waste shall segregate and store the waste generated by them in accordance with the Solid Waste Management Rules, and handover segregated wastes to authorized waste disposal facilities.
  • Responsibility of street vendors and retailers: Not to provide such carry bags or fine would be imposed. Only the registered shopkeepers on payment of a registration fee to local bodies would be allowed to give out plastic carry bags on a charge.
  • To promote the use of plastic for road construction or energy recovery.

The Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2018 (amended 2011 rules)

  • New Central registration system– shall be established by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the registration of the producer/importer/brand owner.
  • Automated- It provides that any mechanism for the registration should be automated and should take into account ease of doing business for producers, recyclers, and manufacturers
  • Pricing Mechanism- The rule for providing the plastic waste management fee, by the vendors/shopkeepers who are willing to provide plastic bags, has been removed.
  • Non-recyclable multi-layered plastic- The 2016 Rules state that the manufacture and use of non-recyclable multi-layered plastic should be phased out in two years. In the 2018 Rules, non-recyclable multi-layered plastic has been replaced with multi-layered plastic which is non-recyclable or nonenergy recoverable or with no alternative use.

Pledge to eliminate single-use plastic:

  • India will eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has announced.
  • The pledge is the most ambitious yet of the global actions to combat plastic pollution that is taking place in 60 nations around the world. PM’s move aims to drastically stem the flow of plastic from the 1.3 billion people living in the fastest growing economy in the world.

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Why the blanket ban on plastic bags is not advisable?

  • A blanket ban (on plastic bags) is not advisable. Plastic is inherently not a public health hazard, but the inability to collect plastic waste leads to health hazards.
  • Initially, plastic bags were introduced to check deforestation. So complete ban may lead to cutting of more trees.
  • The maximum usage of plastic bags is to carry vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish and they are used because they are convenient, easily available and cost-effective. Before banning we need to provide a viable alternative to plastic.

What are the challenges in tackling plastic waste debris?

  • Ubiquitous Transboundary Movement of marine plastics and microplastics: It is becoming a major concern as their property of durability makes their debris remain intact for a long period of time throughout the ocean.
  • Ineffective Waste Collection: the Greatest burden of plastic waste entering the sea is likely to arise where waste collection systems are ineffective or even non-existent.
  • Lack of resources with less developed countries: Less developed and developing countries, in particular, may face challenges in managing the rapidly growing volume of plastic waste.

What should be done?

  • Companies must consider their plastic footprint just as they do their carbon footprint. companies monitor plastic use, disclose their results and increase resource efficiency and recycling.
  • Reduce per capita plastic waste generation
    • First item that has to be targeted is the single­use plastic bag.
    • Behavioural change is necessary and segregation of household waste must be made mandatory.
    • Awareness has to be created on the dangers of plastics hazards and to opt for sustainable and biodegradable products.
  • Cut the amount of mismanaged waste by employing better waste management practices.
    • Recycling is the best available way to tackle waste.
    • We need producers to design packaging so that it is fully recyclable, and so there is less waste.
  • The most effective way to stop plastic pollution in our oceans is to make sure it never reaches the water in the first place. We also need producers to help cover the costs of keeping their products out of the ocean.
  • More R&D is needed like below
    • A team of Japanese researchers has identified Bacterium specie, Ideonella sakaiensis, capable of breaking down the plastic — polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
    • The larvae of wax moth have been shown to degrade polyethylene into ethylene glycol at a fast rate.
    • Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have found a soil fungus called Aspergillus tubingensis in Pakistan that eats plastic. It secretes enzymes onto the surface of the plastic, and these break the chemical bonds between the plastic molecules, or polymers.
  • Incentives for developing eco-friendly substitutes (cloth/paper/jute bags, leaves/areca leaf plates, paper straws), scientific as well as financial support must be provided. It is 500 times better than conventional plastics at protecting food from oxygen.
  • Promoting bioplastics as they can be easily decomposed and have higher biodegradability.
  • Enacting strong policies that push for a more circular model of design and production of plastics, for achieving India’s commitment to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022.
  • Encouraging Public-private partnerships and voluntary agreements as an alternative to bans as it would allow citizens time to change their consumption patterns and provide an opportunity for affordable and eco-friendly alternatives
  • Promoting Green Social Responsibility concept to sensitise citizen and encourage them to be more sustainable in their approach through behavioural change by shifting to a production and consumption system that is smart, innovative and sustainable based on efficiencies across the entire life cycle of the product.
  • In Nilgiri, it was not just a ban that made Nilgiris “plastic free”, but a “people’s movement” that ensured environmentally unfriendly habits along with the seized plastic bags lay buried in a nearby dumping yard.



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