DONA PAULA (Goa): The ubiquitous plastic that is easy to use and easy to discard and forms part of our everyday lives is unwittingly spelling doom for the oceans and its myriad creatures.
It is not only the littering by water bottles, wrappers, bags, nets and industrial waste that is causing havoc, but the smaller broken down components of these plastic components, called 'micro plastics', that are becoming a new and hidden menace.
Dr SWA Naqvi, director of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa, says "plastic pollution is a very big problem and pollution of the global oceans with micro-plastics is only now being estimated in times to come it will become a huge-huge problem that will dog humanity for centuries since plastics outlive humans by a factor of ten."
Fishes, whales, seals and turtles mistakenly eat the larger objects like plastic bags and bottles and these objects then choke their guts. The degraded pieces of larger plastic refuse also pose a problem as they are ingested in smaller biota from where they enter the food web, often finally ending up as part of food for humans.
Striking an alarming note on the pollution caused by plastics, Dr Mahua Saha, a scientist who works on marine pollution at NIO, reports that the world population now produces close to its own weight in plastics every year.
A 2015 global study published in well-regarded American journal 'Science' estimated that 275 million metric tonnes of plastic waste was generated worldwide in 192 coastal countries with as much as 12.7 million metric tonnes entering the oceans as waste.
A 2015 report from the Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC, finds that "approximately 10–20 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year. A recent study conservatively estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing a total of 268,940 tons are currently floating in the world's oceans.
This plastic debris results in an estimated USD 13 billion a year in losses from damage to marine ecosystems".
Every year, each Indian uses about 8 kilograms of plastic according to an estimate by the Central Pollution Control Board (CBCP), meaning annually India consumes a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic. A 2013 study by CBCP revealed that about 15,340 tonnes per day of plastic waste was generated every day and carry bags made of low-density polyethylene make up a bulk of the waste.
The 2015 study by the University of Georgia, USA, ranked India twelfth in the list of countries that mismanaged its plastic waste and let it contaminate the oceans. Leading the pack is China followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. It estimated that 340 grams of plastic waste is generated in India per person per day with China topping the list with almost three times more waste being generated.
The study suggests that, in coastal areas of India, about 87 per cent of the plastic waste is mismanaged.
Saha says, "Plastics are really a very big threat to humans", adding that more than 80 per cent of all marine debris originates from the land and according to her some plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to degrade and, even when they degrade, they continue to pose a huge risk to living organisms.
Plastics pose a double whammy, to make some of them flexible often toxic compounds are mixed as additives and some of these, as they bio-accumulate, can be cancer causing. In addition, Saha points out that since plastics are essentially organic solids, over time as they float around, they absorb toxic chemicals and when these in turn are gobbled by the living organisms, the toxic chemicals tend to start accumulating in the fat tissues and can lead to growth of tumours and cancers.
To get a better understanding on the magnitude of the problem that India's over 7,500-kilometre-long coastline faces due to pollution by plastics, the NIO is all set to launch a Rs 90 lakh three-year project to map the magnitude of the problem.
Every beach in Goa is contaminated with plastics, exclaims Saha. A 2006 study found that in the ship-breaking yard of Alang in Gujarat, every ten kilograms of sediment contained about 1 gram of plastic waste -- no trivial amount since actually there should be none.
On a recent cruise on India's research ship, Saha found to her surprise plastic debris even at 700-800 meter depth below the sea. Saha exclaims the scourge of plastics is contaminating the deep seas as well. In the deep seas, the micro-plastic particles -- often smaller than the human hair -- enter the plankton or the main food producers of the oceans. Then a vicious cycle begins as they find their way through the complex food chains into the edible fishes and often end up on our food plates.
Interestingly, Saha reports that India has the highest rates of plastic recycling topping at 47 per cent, which means that, still, more than half of the plastics India consumes ends up as waste.
"Reduce, reuse, recycle, rebuy and re-think" should be the governing principle when plastics are used, says Saha who terms "saying no to plastics" the easiest solution to eliminating the long-term threat that plastic pollution poses to survival of life in the oceans. Hence a 'Swachh Bharat' is good for the survival of all life forms.