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Editorial Articles

Issue no 10, 4 - 10 JUNE 2022

End Plastic Pollution’ for Conservation of Freshwater & Marine Ecosystems

Ranjan K Panda

Last month, I had visited the steel city Rourkela in Odisha to meet some of the young environmentalists who are working relentlessly - in their own little ways - to make this world a better place to live. Each one of them is taking up some or the other initiative to reduce plastic pollution and make behavioural changes among fellow youths and citizens towards adoption of green lifestyles. One thing that bothers them 24x7 is the growing plastic menace. They understand well, and are concerned about the fact that, their efforts are too little for the gigantic problem plastic poses to this earth.

One of the new generation environmentalists, as I term them, is busy collecting e-wastes to recycle them. Plastics, he says, constitutes a huge percentage of these wastes. Recycling these materials would therefore help our soil, air and water get less contaminated by plastic pollution. Another one is promoting green packaging among the city dwellers. She has been saddened by the use of plastic wrappers in almost everything including small gift items and bouquets used in marriages and functions. She is an eco-entrepreneur like the e-waste recycler and has been doing her bit to prevent plastic penetrate into the ecology. The third eco-warrior, a student, is concerned about the plastic pollution that enters into the rivers. She is especially worried and wants to do something about making the Koel River that flows across the city of Rourkela, a clean and healthy one.

 In fact, in the meantime, after our discussion, the youths have already initiated a campaign to save the Koel river from pollution. Responding to their calls, the Rourkela Municipal Corporation also has started cleaning the river bank and ghats along with the local youths. During the clean-up activity, these eco-warriors are making short videos to show to the public how much litter they have dumped into the river. They are fetching all kind of wastes from the river at the banks and helping the urban local body in transporting the same to the earmarked dump yards.

The work certainly does not end there and the pollutants don't stop contaminating our land and water bodies. These youths, and several youths and other volunteers, are doing their bit to clean up river banks throughout the country. These are important initiatives and need to be sustained but the task at hand is too large to be handled by such clean-up movements only. Plastic menace is growing faster than we can cope.

Earth Overburdened

Plastic that started as a symbol of progress a few decades ago has now overshadowed human civilization. Its growth has been twenty-fold in the past half a century and currently nothing in our life is free from plastics. It provides us with a lot of convenience but has put our very existence at jeopardy. It's a menace from top to toe, from the production stage to the use through disposal - the entire lifecycle.

According to researchers, more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics have been produced since the early 1950s. Information by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that the rate of plastic production has grown faster than any other material since the 1950s. In an era of climate change, when countries are finding ways to reduce vulnerabilities caused by climate change and mitigate the impacts, what worries is the fact that almost all of these plastics are produced from chemicals derived from climate culprits such as oil, natural gas and coal.

We use plastic in almost everything and a lot of that is single-use plastic that's then thrown up without really bothering where they go. Estimates by the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) have put it that about 60 percent of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment. And, as we are all aware, most of these landfills are not sanitary ones meaning no proper management of the litter they receive. We have seen waste carriers and compactors carrying loads of these plastics along with other materials and dumping the same at designated sites in urban and rural limits. Over the years an awareness has grown among the common public about the fact that plastics can't be destroyed and they stay in the planet for hundreds and thousands of years. However, there has been limited awareness and efforts to reuse and recycle that could actually reduce a lot of wastes that's being generated and ending up in our natural environments including our freshwater and marine ecosystems.

In fact, the world adds up plastic waste at an annual rate of 303 million tonnes. This is supposed to be almost 75 percent of all plastics that have been produced. Most concerning, as already discussed, is the growing use of single-use plastic by the humans in their day to day life, in production processes, medical treatment, packaging and almost everything. We also have a huge load of microplastics, invisible to normal eyes, that keeps on adding to the already burdened environment, humans and other species. Estimates put it that only 9 percent of all the plastic waste has so far been recycled and about 12 percent incinerated. While both the recycled and incinerated plastic wastes also create some pollution loads, the fact that 79 percent of the waste has been accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment is a matter of big concern. Most of these go on to pollute our water bodies including the oceans. The future does not look any better as plastic production is expected to triple by 2050.

The water we drink is plastic, the food we eat is plastic!

A study, that I had come across and reported in 2017, found out - based on a global research of tap water samples supplied to humans - that "Microscopic plastic fibers are pouring out of faucets from New York to New Delhi for consumption by people, pets, and livestock." This was previously unknown! From poor countries to rich, from poor people to the wealthy; almost all have been impacted by this contamination. Samples drawn from across the world show how tap water quality - in so far as the microscopic plastic contamination is concerned - in the US was no different than that found in Uganda. Shockingly the study also found plastic fibers in bottled waters from leading US brands and in homes that use Reverse-Osmosis (RO) filters. Orb media says, "a person who drinks two liters of water a day, or beverages like coffee, tea, and soda, might ingest eight plastic fibers - more than 2,900 each year". Isn't that alarming? The study took 159 drinking water samples from across the world. Almost 83 percent of this tested positive for synthetic fibers.

Another first, this year in March, a Dutch study published in the Environment International journal found out micro-plastics in human blood. This was found in nearly 80 percent of the blood samples from 22 anonymous and healthy people. The researchers claimed this to be the first ever time plastic was found in human blood. They found traces of PET plastic in half of the samples. This material is used in manufacturing drinking water bottles. Polystyrene, that's mostly used in producing disposable food containers and several other products, was found in more than one third of the samples.

Micro-plastics that has the potential of entering into human body through inhaling polluted air, that's the cause of millions of deaths across the world, has also been found in human lungs for the first time in another recent study that has been accepted for publication by the journal 'Science of the Total Environment.' The scientists, who studied samples taken from tissue removed from 13 patients undergoing surgery, found out micro-plastics were found in 11 cases. In this case the most common particles found were polypropylene that's used in pipes and plastic packaging materials, and PET. While exact impact of such contamination on the human health is yet to be established, there has been a general consensus that plastics - including micro-plastics - are exposing humans to several health hazards.

Micro-plastics are entering into our body via many routes: air, water and food. Starting from the local surface waterbody to the rivers and up to the oceans; starting from the soil in our backyards to the mountains at the distante places; these contaminants have reached everywhere. Plastic is in the rain, in our food, in our drinking water and even in human placenta!

Oceans Contaminated

The oceans receive at least 14 million tonnes of plastic each year. This may go up to 32 million tonnes by 2040. It is being warned that, if this speed continues unabated, the oceans may actually have more plastic than fish by 2050. Plastic debris is currently the most abundant type of litter in the ocean, making up 80 percent of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. The worry of our young eco-warriors of Rourkela is genuine when they say no litter from the city should end up at the Koel river. Most of what we throw in our neighbourhood, in open spaces and in water bodies and rivers ultimately end up contaminating the oceans and its biodiversity. It is estimated that plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals every year. Fishing industry, nautical activities and aquaculture are some of the sources of ocean-based plastic pollution.

The clean-up activities at the shorelines and river banks are good efforts but it cannot reduce a lot of plastic load that is flowing through our storm water drains to the rivers and ultimately to oceans killing millions of species and impacting the ocean biodiversity in many ways besides affecting the inland environment in numerous ways. We can no longer be ignorant to these crimes that we are committing even as we call ourselves civilized.

Rivers and Lakes Need Attention

A study report published in 2018 by researchers from the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ of Germany warned us that the mismanaged plastic wastes generated in the river catchments are finding their way to the seas. The debris of plastic waste that they studied include both micro plastic (particles less than 5mm) and macro plastic (particles more than 5 mm). In this global study of plastic wastes across a wide range of river sizes, analysis of data by the researchers found out that large rivers with population-rich catchments are responsible for delivering a disproportionately higher fraction of mismanaged plastic wastes into the sea.

The study concluded that the 10 top-ranked rivers transport 88-95 percent of the global load into the sea, and eight of them are in Asia. The rest two are from Africa. The study, that analysed data from 79 sampling sites along 57 rivers, found out that 5 trillion pounds of plastic is floating in the seas. It claimed that targeting the most polluted rivers could halve the plastic burden of all the seas, even though that might not end the harm that micro plastic is already doing to marine life.

An earlier study by researchers at the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch foundation, found out that rivers carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tonnes of plastic into the sea every year. To transport this amount of plastic, we would require between 48,000 to over 100,000 dump trucks, claimed the study. This study, that found out that this plastic load is carried to the sea by 20 most polluted rivers of the world, also confirmed that most of them are from Asia. According to the report of the study, published in Nature Communications, the researchers concluded that the top 20 polluting rivers were mostly located in Asia and accounted for more than two thirds (67%) of the global annual input while covering 2.2 percent of the continental surface area and representing 21 percent of the global population.

A very recent study, published by researchers from Savoie Mont Blanc University of France, in the journal Environmental Pollution, talked about the microplastics contamination of 98 lakes from across the world. Lakes are potential temporary or long-term micro-plastics accumulators, according to the residence time of water, said this study. According to the researchers, lacustrine ecosystems may suffer the same fate as marine ecosystems, or even worse, owing to their greater exposure. This study brought to focus some important aspects of micro-plastics contamination from other scientific studies. It mentioned that plastic pollution has three origins: macro-plastic fragmentation in the environment, wear and tear of products that contain plastic polymers (e.g. fragmentation of textile fibres during washing, paints, and tires), and intentional origin (e.g. exfoliants, industrial abrasions, and drug vectorisation). It also talked about researches that have studied about climate change impacts concerning micro-plastics in aquatic ecosystems. It says that micro-plastics emissions to the environment and, transport increase through precipitation, flooding, glacier melting, and runoff; plastic in the atmosphere intensifies with the increase in strong wind events. It also mentions how microplastic suspension from sediments increases through wind and water currents as well as temperature changes in water. Further, plastic retention increases through higher evaporation in lakes.

A Plastic Treaty: Road from Nairobi

Between 28 February and 2 March this year, as the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), took place at Nairobi, all eyes were on the demand by several nations and other stakeholders for a binding treaty - something like the Montreal Protocol - to address the plastic challenge. It was expected to result in a mandate for an International Negotiating Committee to work out a legally binding agreement that makes it mandatory for nations to reduce plastic pollution going into the oceans. A treaty like this could pave ways for national targets and plans for reduction, recycling and management of plastic.

Historic, as it is being called, the Nairobi assembly indeed came up with a resolution to ‘End Plastic Pollution’ and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. This treaty is to address the full lifecycle of plastic products - production and use, as well as disposal. Some people are saying that this treaty, if delivered in 2024, could be key to turning off "the plastic tap."

We all are hopeful about this treaty. Our young eco-warriors in Rourkela are looking at ways and means to make the local authorities and public more responsible and accountable. We could hope that such a treaty paves the way for more stringent regulations and effective strategies to reduce, recycle and reuse plastics in its complete lifecycle. This could also bring hope for survival of both our freshwater and marine ecosystems. The more we progress towards such end-plastic actions, the better our chances of achieving our climate goals and keeping the hope for this planet alive. We have only one earth. We cannot let plastic choke its fate.

(The author is a well-known water and climate change expert with more than 3 decades of experience on these issues. He is also a senior columnist. He can be reached at ranjanpanda@gmail.com)

Views expressed are personal.