How India can face the tidal wave of marine plastic

The problem of marine plastic pollution can — and must — be tackled from various perspectives. This article discusses some of them

By Shailshree Tewari
Published: Tuesday 06 July 2021

The extensive use of plastic in India has reached a critical point, which should concern everyone.

The Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) Annual Report on Implementing the Plastic Garbage Rules, 2016, is the only regular estimate of the quantum of plastic waste generated in India. According to it, the waste generated in 2018-19 was 3,360,043 tonnes per year (roughly 9,200 tonnes per day).

Given that total municipal solid waste generation is between 55 and 65 million tonnes per day, plastic waste contributes about 5-6 per cent of total solid waste generated in India.

Our relationship with plastic is short-term focused. We only use it once before discarding it and would like to believe that it is being recycled. But according to a 2017 science breakthroughs study, only nine per cent of all plastic waste has ever been recycled.

Approximately 12 per cent has been burnt, while the remaining 79 per cent has accumulated in landfills. Plastic waste is blocking our sewers, threatening marine life and generating health risks for residents in landfills or the natural environment.

The financial costs of marine plastic pollution are significant as well. According to conservative forecasts made in March 2020, the direct harm to the blue economy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be $2.1 billion per year.

Notably, only the direct expenses of three industries are covered: Shipping, fisheries and aquaculture and maritime tourism. Boats may become entangled in abandoned or discarded fishing nets or their engines may become blocked with plastic debris.

According to the World Economic Forum report, 2016, under a “business-as-usual” scenario, this $2.1 billion per year estimate is likely to rise, as plastics production is expected to triple between now and 2050.

Enormous social costs accompany these economic costs. Residents of coastal regions suffer from the harmful health impacts of plastic pollution and waste brought in by the tides and are inextricably linked to the fishing and tourism industry for their livelihoods. Therefore, we must begin finding solutions to prevent plastics and other waste from polluting our oceans and clean them up.

The problem of marine plastic pollution can — and must — be tackled from a range of perspectives. Some of the solutions are as follows:

1.Designing a product: Identifying plastic items that can be replaced with non-plastic, recyclable, or biodegradable materials is the first step. Find alternatives to single-use plastics and reusable design goods by working with product designers. Countries must embrace circular and sustainable economic practices throughout the plastics value chain to accomplish this.

2.Pricing: Plastics are inexpensive because they are made with substantially subsidised oil and may be produced at a lower cost, with fewer economic incentives to employ recycled plastics. Price structures that reflect the adverse impacts of plastic consumption and promote alternative materials or reused and recycled plastics are necessary.

3.Technologies and Innovation: Developing tools and technology to assist governments and organisations in measuring and monitoring plastic garbage in cities. ‘Closing the loop’ project of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific assists cities in developing more inventive policy solutions to tackle the problem. A similar approach can be adopted in India. 

4.Promoting a plastic-free workplace: All catering operations should be prohibited from using single-use plastics. To encourage workers and clients to improve their habits, all single-use goods can be replaced with reusable items or more sustainable single-use alternatives. By reconsidering how we operate, this initiative can save tonnes of plastic waste each year.

5.Producer responsibility: Extended responsibility can be applied in the retail (packaging) sector, where producers are responsible for collecting and recycling products that they launch into the market.

6.Municipal and community actions: Beach and river clean-ups, public awareness campaigns explaining how people’s actions contribute to marine plastic pollution (or how they may solve it) and disposable plastic bag bans and levies.

7.Multi-stakeholder collaboration: Government ministries at the national and local levels must collaborate in the development, implementation and oversight of policies, which includes participation from industrial firms, non-governmental organisations and volunteer organisations. Instead of acting in silos, all these stakeholders must collaborate and synchronise with one another.

Solving the problem of marine plastic involves a change in production and consumption habits, which would help meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The central UN SDGs that deal with marine plastics are SDG 12 and SDG 14.

Apart from the solutions mentioned above, the government can take several steps to combat plastic pollution. Identifying hotspots for plastic leakage can assist governments in developing effective policies that address the plastic problem directly.   

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