Photo: Anwesa Dutta
- Modern societies rely heavily on single-use or disposable plastic, to the point where scientists have suggested that plastic waste could be an indicator of the Anthropocene epoch.
- From Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench, microplastics have been found throughout the water column. Scientists have also found microplastics in human blood.
- We make and wish to use too much of plastic, so as a first step, we must design the objects we use to be devoid of any plastic as well as to be reusable, repairable and recyclable.
The pollution of our planet with plastic and microplastics has become a matter of grave concern. Societies rely heavily on single-use or disposable plastic, which has significant negative effects on the environment. Scientists have even suggested that plastic waste could be a geological indicator of the Anthropocene epoch.
The UN Environment Programme had released an assessment of marine pollution before the COP26 climate talks last year and ahead of the UN Environment Assembly meeting in 2022. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development also published a working paper in October 2021 on the most effective policy interventions to reduce single-use plastic waste.
Together, they indicated that plastic accounts for at least 85% of marine litter and that plastic waste emissions into aquatic ecosystems could tripe (from current numbers) by 2040.
Plastic, plastic everywhere
The oceans receive most of their plastic trash from land. More than 14 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. The majority of river-borne plastic entering the ocean comes from just 10 rivers, eight of them in Asia. China’s Yangtze river contributes 1.5 million metric tonnes of plastic a year and is the major source.
Upon reaching the sea, much of the plastic trash remains there. But once it gets caught in ocean currents, it can be transported all over the planet. Plastic waste breaks down into small particles at sea when it is exposed to sunlight, wind and wave action. These particles are often smaller than one-fifth of an inch.
The environmental issue of plastic has become one of the most pressing concerns of our time. The per capita generation of plastic waste in India has almost doubled in the last five years. About 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated each year. The adverse effects of plastic pollution on our ecosystems are also linked to air pollution.
There is a great deal of plastic waste filling our lakes, rivers, and oceans, and possibly all water bodies and soil as well. Plastic debris can cause severe injuries or death to marine species if ingested or entangled. Food safety, human health, coastal tourism and climate change are threatened by plastic pollution. Plastic kills millions of animals every year, including birds, fish and other marine organisms.
The impact that plastic has on other species residing on this planet is in all nothing short of catastrophic. (Seabirds consume plastic in large amounts, so the documentary Albatross, by Chris Jordan, is a must-watch if you’re interested in how plastic has affected these particular birds.)
Effects of plastic waste
Every year, plastic kills millions of animals. More than 700 species, including endangered ones, have been affected by plastics in some way. Marine animals entangled in plastic also suffer from heat exhaustion, suffocation, dehydration and starvation, and often die. When the limbs of animals are trapped, the animals become less agile and thus more vulnerable to predators as well.
If consumed, plastic can choke the food pipe, block the intestines or cause internal injuries, all of which can lead to death. The animal may also believe its stomach is full when it contains plastic items instead of food, and die of starvation. (Sea turtles often confuse discarded plastic bags with food.)
Our water bodies are being choked by plastic waste. A study published in April this year found that roughly 1,000 rivers account for over 80% of the plastic waste flowing into the oceans from rivers.
Several of the largest ones have been identified to be among the most prolific carriers of plastic waste, including the Indus, the Brahmaputra and the Ganga in India. But the study also found that smaller rivers also often carry more plastic than larger rivers in heavily populated areas.
Plastic waste poses a big problem if it is not recycled. And a part of the problem here is production – i.e. we make and wish to use too much of it. We must design the objects we use to be bereft of any plastic as well as to be reusable, repairable and recyclable.
For example, Plastobag is one of 16 companies in India that the Central Pollution Control Board has authorised to manufacture bioplastics in the country. The company manufactures carry bags, cutlery, films, food containers and bin liners that can be degraded by the microbes in composting facilities within six months.
This makes them a potentially viable solution to India’s plastic problem, although the matter of scaling it up to a country of more than a billion still remains.
Some major food companies are also switching to delivering packaged food in cardboard or paper-based products that were previously made of plastic. There are also many environmentally friendly menstrual hygiene products such as bio-fibre pads, cloth pads and menstrual cups in the market. This may seem like drops in the ocean but we must begin somewhere and we must build upwards.
We must also celebrate the efforts of those working to ameliorate the effects of plastic pollution. For example, Estrela Matilde is a conservation biologist who won the Whitley Award in 2022 – a.k.a. the ‘green Oscar’ – for her exemplary work to save sea turtles from plastic pollution in the countries of São Tomé and Príncipe.
That there is only one Earth should be obvious, but we live in a time where this needs to be repeated. This planet and its good health presents the only chance we will have to live fair and well. To this end, let’s do what we can to stop plastic pollution.
Anwesa Dutta works with UNICEF Odisha in a youth-based campaign called ‘Youth4Water’. She is also a nature enthusiast and a bird-lover.