Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The ever-growing problem of plastic pollution in the oceans

While plastic is an intrinsic part of our life, we must curb its usage to reduce plastic waste. We also have to take responsibility for properly disposing of plastic waste if we want to keep our oceans pristine

Published: Jun 16, 2023 01:17:57 PM IST
Updated: Jun 16, 2023 02:08:29 PM IST

The ever-growing problem of plastic pollution in the oceansThe Indian Government added its might to the plastic pollution mitigation effort by initiating the 75-day long “Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar” initiative, under which 75 beaches nationwide were cleaned up. Image: Indranil Mukherjee / AFP

Having lived in Mumbai for a large part of our lives, we cannot but associate ourselves with the mood upliftment that the sights and smells of the ocean bring.

For the same reasons, some of our best family vacations have always been near the oceans, whether Maldives or Langkawi (in Malaysia) or, indeed, Goa or Kerala, in India. The oceans provide a certain sense of romanticism, do they not?

The great plastic problem

The oceans are, unfortunately, changing dramatically in recent times. And one of the causes is plastic pollution.

The plastic debris in the sea has become a garbage patch in the north-central Pacific Ocean known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Located between Hawaii and California, its size is estimated to exceed four times that of India’s largest state, Rajasthan. This non-biodegradable debris accumulated in the patch consists of many plastics that do not wear down but break into tiny pieces. Even though 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from land-based sources, it was found in a National Geographic study in 2018 that synthetic fishing nets are the major contributors to the garbage patch in the Pacific.

Every year, thousands of fish, turtles, seabirds, and other marine mammals consume plastic without realising the consequences and die. These microplastics can also enter the food chain as small organisms ingest them, and then they are eaten by larger animals. It poses a risk to human health, as seafood is a major source of protein for many people around the world.

Efforts have been made towards the most challenging task of cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. While the jury is out on whether that is feasible, many organisations are trying to prevent this patch from growing further.

Also watch: A sea change in our outlook, and not a changing tide, will determine the future of oceanic resources

As per a recent Bloomberg report, the ship ‘X-Pearl’ caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka and sank into the Indian Ocean. The UN referred to it as the largest plastic spill in history. This vessel was carrying billions of tiny plastic pellets called nurdles. Scientists are worried that marine life will consume these nurdles and, in turn, also impact humans, who could ingest these pellets. The concern over human health led the Sri Lankan government to ban fishing off the coast. It affected the livelihood of thousands. Though the Alliance to End Plastic Waste has partnered with Sri Lanka to restore their beaches with the help of ’Sweepy Hydros’ machines, the progress is slow as the clean-up requires manually scooping and sifting sand to collect the nurdles washed ashore.

These are just two instances of how plastic is negatively affecting not only marine but also human life.

The position is equally concerning in India. A study published in Science Journal shows that India is ranked 12th (amongst 192 countries), notorious for disbursing the maximum amount of plastic waste into the high seas from their coastline. India’s coastline spans 7,517 kilometres, with a population of 420 million living near the coast. Coastal districts are home to nearly 14 percent of the country’s population, and three in four metro cities are on the coast. According to UNEP, more than 15,000 MT of waste (a lot of it is plastic) per day are dumped in the South Asian seas, generated from 60 major Indian cities.

So, have we already reached a tipping point on ocean plastic pollution?

Also read: Rise in ocean plastic pollution 'unprecedented' since 2005

The solutions

It is fortunately not all gloom and doom. Many corporates are involved in initiatives to reduce their plastic footprint and invest in R&D to create new materials that are less harmful to the environment. Several companies are now using more sustainable packaging materials and implementing plastic recycling programs. Many others are supporting plastic collection/recycling efforts of NGOs/social enterprises as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility.

One of the encouraging corporate initiatives is the partnership between Adidas and NGO “Parley for the Oceans”, a non-profit environmental organisation focusing on protecting the oceans (founded by Cyrill Gutsch in 2012). They worked together to create a product line using upcycled plastic from marine dumps. Conscious customers were happy to pay a premium for this unique product.

‘Parley for the Oceans’ has adopted a three-pronged strategy to help save the oceans and marine life. The approach “AIR” focuses on ‘Avoiding’ plastic wherever possible, ‘Intercepting’ plastic waste, and ‘Redesigning’ the material. In June 2020, Parley announced a $50 million partnership with the South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme and the World Bank to clean up plastic pollution in water in eight countries of South Asia, including Bangladesh, India, and the Maldives.

The Indian Government added its might to the plastic pollution mitigation effort by initiating the 75-day long “Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar” initiative, under which 75 beaches nationwide were cleaned up. It was hailed as the world’s largest coastal clean-up, with the highest number ever of participants in such an initiative.

Parley and the Government of Andhra Pradesh (GoAP) announced the launch of Parley India in 2022, with a massive beach clean-up near Visakhapatnam (across 28 km, with over 20,000 volunteers). GoAP expects an investment of Rs. 60 billion in the next six years and an employment generation of 20,000. Parley will set up “Parley Super Hub” for recycling and upcycling of plastic wastes and “Parley Future Institute”, a cutting-edge research centre for future new materials.

Also read: In the ocean, it's now snowing microplastics

Civil society organisations are playing their part too. The Kerala-based waste management organisation, Green Worms (they operate in islands in Andamans and Lakshadweep too, besides riverside and coastal towns in Kerala), aims to create dignified jobs by deploying the strategy of the circular economy, to eradicate both plastic pollution and poverty. Their endeavour (they report collecting 39400 MT of plastic waste and creating 520 dignified jobs for women) is partnered by some public and private players, both Indian and international.

To tackle the issue of ghost fishing nets (which also trap and kill Olive Ridley turtles), the Chennai-based non-profit TREE Foundation formed a Sea Turtle Protection Force (largely unemployed youth from fishing communities) from 200+ coastal villages across the east coast of India. It has saved more than 3 million Olive Ridley turtles in 20 years. In June 2021, a ghost net retrieval programme (incentivising fishermen) retrieved 57 MT of ghost nets from the sea.

However, these actions are a drop in the ocean, literally and figuratively. There is a need for a huge lot more—the formulation of a National Marine Litter policy, the development of a long-term vision plan for promoting partnerships among coastal towns/cities and urban administration for the reduction of marine litter/creation of sustainable waste management ecosystems, regular beach clean-up and awareness programs, and many more.

As humans, we have responsibilities at corporate and governmental levels and as individuals. The key is the realisation that while plastic is an intrinsic part of our life, there is a need to curb its usage (reusable bags for grocery shopping/storage, buying foods with sustainable packaging, avoiding plastic water bottles by carrying our own), which in turn will reduce plastic waste. We also have to take responsibility for properly disposing of plastic waste by recycling. As important, regulations related to plastic use (such as a ban on single-use plastic below 50 microns) must be strictly enforced.

Prabhat Pani, Executive Director, Centre for Innovation in Sustainable Development (CISD) at Bhavan's SPJIMR.Sunita Chandak, Associate, Centre for Innovation in Sustainable Development (CISD) at Bhavan's SPJIMR.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from SP Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai. Views expressed by authors are personal.]