Photo: Anwesa Dutta
- Modern societies rely heavily on single-use or disposable plastic, to the point that 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 want to use too much plastic, so first we need to design the things we use to be plastic-free as well as reusable, repairable and recyclable.
The pollution of our planet by plastic and microplastics has become a matter of serious 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 Program released a marine pollution assessment ahead of the COP26 climate talks last year and ahead of the UN Environment Assembly meeting in 2022. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development also released a discussion 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 emissions of plastic litter into aquatic ecosystems could decrease (compared to current figures) by 2040.
Plastic, plastic everywhere
The oceans receive most of their plastic waste from land. More than 14 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. The majority of river plastic that enters the ocean comes from just 10 rivers, eight of which are in Asia. The Yangtze River in China produces 1.5 million metric tons of plastic per year and is its main source.
Upon reaching the sea, a large part of the plastic waste remains there. But once caught in ocean currents, it can be transported anywhere on the planet. Plastic waste breaks down into small particles at sea when exposed to sun, wind and wave action. These particles are often smaller than a fifth of an inch.
From Mount Everest, the tallest peak, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest trough, microplastics have been found throughout the water column. Scientists have also found microplastics in human blood.
The environmental issue of plastic has become one of the most pressing concerns of our time. Per capita plastic waste generation in India has nearly doubled over the past five years. About 3.5 million tons of plastic waste are generated each year. The harmful effects of plastic pollution on our ecosystems are also linked to air pollution.
There is a lot of plastic waste filling our lakes, rivers and oceans, and possibly all water bodies and soil as well. Plastic debris can cause serious injury or death to marine life if ingested or entangled. Food security, human health, coastal tourism and climate change are threatened by plastic pollution. Plastic kills millions of animals each year, including birds, fish and other marine organisms.
The impact of plastic on other species living on this planet is ultimately catastrophic. (Seabirds consume plastic in large quantities, so the documentary Albatrossby Chris Jordan, is not to be missed if you are interested in the impact of plastic on these particular birds.)
Effects of plastic waste
Every year, plastic kills millions of animals. Over 700 species, including endangered species, have been affected by plastics in one way or another. Marine animals entangled in plastic also suffer from heat exhaustion, suffocation, dehydration and starvation, and often die. When animal limbs are trapped, the animals become less agile and therefore more vulnerable to predators as well.
If consumed, the plastic can clog the food pipe, block the intestines or cause internal injuries, all of which can lead to death. The animal may also believe that its stomach is full when it contains plastic objects instead of food and starve. (Sea turtles often mistake discarded plastic bags for food.)
Our bodies of water are choked with plastic waste. A study published in April this year found that around 1,000 rivers account for more than 80% of the plastic waste that pours into the oceans from rivers.
Several of the larger ones have been identified as being among the most prolific carriers of plastic waste, including the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges in India. But the study also found that small rivers often carry more plastic than large rivers in heavily populated areas.
For the Earth
Plastic waste is a big problem if it is not recycled. And part of the problem here is production – that is, we make it and want to use too much of it. We must design the things we use to be plastic-free, reusable, repairable and recyclable.
For example, Plastobag is one of 16 companies in India that the Central Pollution Control Board has licensed to manufacture bioplastics in the country. The company makes carrier bags, cutlery, film, food containers and trash bags that can be degraded by microbes in composting facilities within six months.
This makes it a potentially viable solution to India’s plastic problem, although the question of extending it to a country of over a billion remains.
Some large food companies are also shifting to delivering food packaged in cardboard or paper products that were previously plastic. There are also many environmentally friendly menstrual hygiene products on the market, such as biofiber pads, cloth pads and menstrual cups. It may seem like drops in the ocean, but we have to start somewhere and build up.
We must also celebrate the efforts of those working to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution. For example, Estrela Matilde is a conservation biologist who won the Whitley Award in 2022 – aka “the Green Oscar” – for her exemplary work saving 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 when it needs to be repeated. This planet and its good health represent the only chance we will have to live justly and well. To that end, let’s do what we can to stop plastic pollution.
Anwesa Dutta works with UNICEF Odisha on a campaign for young people called ‘Youth4Water’. She is also a nature enthusiast and a bird lover.