Insights into Editorial: In a plastics world
Plastics are detrimental to human health because of the chemicals used in their production. These chemicals are used to change the properties of plastics. Humans are exposed to such toxins through air and water, through food such as fish, or direct contact with plastic products.
Last year December, 193 nations signed pledge to tackle ‘global crisis’ of plastic in the oceans.
Countries agreed to start monitoring the amount of plastic they put into the ocean and to explore ways to make it illegal to dump waste in the seas.
Why do we need to act now?
Nearly eight million tonnes of plastic – bottles, packaging and other waste – are dumped into the ocean every year. This plastic waste is then killing marine life and entering the human food chain.
According to the UN Environment Programme, the global production of plastics has reached at over 300 million tonnes a year.
Micro plastics (particles of less than 5 mm) such as those used in scrubbers and cosmetics, ingested by marine animals can cause accumulation of certain chemicals and result in physiological impacts. Micro plastics can impair reproduction and development and alter how species function.
Like greenhouse gases, plastic is also not constrained by national boundaries, because it migrates via water and air currents and settles in benthic sediments.
Majority of ocean’s area is beyond national jurisdictions which resulted into “garbage patches” in oceanic gyres by the accumulation of plastic waste from different nations.
Unlike POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), Plastic pollution has received little attention in terms of international agreements.
The health impact of the presence of polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate and other chemicals in drinking water, food and even inhaled air may not yet be clear, but indisputably these are contaminants.
No single solution will stop marine plastic pollution. Hence an internationally agreed and a legally binding instrument are required.
Common sources of Plastic pollution
Merchant ships expel cargo, sewage, used medical equipment, and other types of waste that contain plastic into the ocean.
The largest ocean-based source of plastic pollution is discarded fishing gear (including traps and nets).
Continental plastic litter such as Food Wrappers & Containers, Bottles and container caps, Plastic bags, Straws and stirrers etc. enters the ocean largely through storm-water runoff.
What is ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ of plastic debris?
Five large mega-gyres—great whirlpools where currents collide—in the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean have become filled with garbage.
The enormous collection of detritus that floats in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and California is known as Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).
The GPGP is a galaxy of garbage composed of a network of plastic, large and small.
What are some of the efforts at International level to curb Plastic waste?
Local policies and actions such as bans on micro beads and single-use plastic bags are spreading across the globe, but there are only a handful of international documents focused on plastic pollution.
International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, later modified as MARPOL, is an international agreement that addresses plastic pollution. MARPOL, which bans ships from dumping plastic at sea, was a great first step.
But even after MARPOL came into force, dumping of plastic waste into sea has not reduced. Steps to prevent plastic waste lack defined reduction targets, methods to monitor progress.
In 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States and UNEP created the Honolulu Strategy—a planning tool to reduce plastic pollution and its impacts.
In 2012, a voluntary commitment of a significant reduction of marine debris was introduced at Rio+20 with a deadline of 2025.
In February 2017, UNEP announced the Clean Seas campaign, asking for individuals, industries, and member states to voluntarily commit to an action of their choice to reduce plastic pollution.
Recently, at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, more than 193 nations passed a resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in our seas. However, it’s not a legally binding treaty.
What are the solutions?
Local actions are required for mitigating plastic pollution, using mechanisms such as bans on plastic bags, maximum daily limits for emissions into watersheds, and incentives for fishing gear retrieval.
Countries should come together to establish measurable reduction targets for plastic waste. A meaningful international agreement—one with clearly defined waste reduction targets is the need of the hour.
Effective policies must take into account all stages of the lifecycle of plastic—connecting producers to users and ultimately to waste managers.
Fossil fuel subsidies incentivise the plastic market. Hence, Countries should end fossil fuel subsidies. Annually, 4–8% of oil is used to produce raw plastic.
India has a major problem dealing with plastics, particularly single-use shopping bags that reach dumping sites, rivers and wetlands along with other waste.
The most efficient way to deal with the pollution is to control the production and distribution of plastics.
Banning single-use bags and making consumers pay a significant amount for the more durable ones is a feasible solution.
Enforcing the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, which require segregation of waste will retrieve materials and greatly reduce the burden on the environment.
Waste separation can be achieved in partnership with the community, and presents a major employment opportunity.
As the European Union’s vision 2030 document on creating a circular plastic economy explains, the answer lies in changing the very nature of plastics, from cheap and disposable to durable, reusable and fully recyclable.
Marine plastic pollution is a “planetary crisis,” and we should hope for a “Paris-style” global treaty aimed at tackling it.