Plastic waste woes: A primer on India’s marine litter problem

Only 60 per cent of the total collected plastic waste is recycled, while the fate of the remaining 40 per cent is not accounted

By Ashish Kumar Chauhan
Published: Wednesday 11 January 2023
Plastic contributes significantly to the growing burden of marine debris. Photo: iStock.

India generates 55 million tonnes of municipal waste annually, of which only 37 per cent is treated, according to the Central Pollution Control Board.

Growing population, rapid urbanisation, shifting consumption pattern and changing lifestyles have resulted in the mismanagement of plastic waste, leading to the accumulation of municipal solid waste.

Also read: Extreme weather events in India may be transporting more plastic litter into oceans, warn experts

Most of these items, especially plastic items, contribute significantly to the growing burden of marine debris. Land-based sources account for most of the plastic in the water.

Unaccounted waste from urban agglomerations is carried by river systems to oceans for final dumping.

India has a coastline spanning 7,517 kilometres. It is spread across nine states and borders a 2.02 million square kilometre of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). India’s nine coastal states house a population of 420 million. Of this, about 330 million live on or within 150 km of a coast. 

Three in four metro cities of the country are located on the coast. Coastal districts are home to nearly 14.2 per cent of the country’s total population. Around 95 per cent of India’s trade by volume and 68 per cent by value is executed through waterways.

Percentage of Indians living on the coast

                                                                                Source: CSE,2022

The country’s coastline contributes to its ecological richness, biodiversity and economy. Every year, thousands of tonnes of garbage, composed of plastics, glass, metals, sanitary products, clothes, etc., are dumped into it. However, plastics contribute a major portion of about 60 per cent of the total marine debris that reaches the oceans.

Also read: Plastic pollution in aquatic systems may triple by 2040: UNEP

Waste management in this intensely populated region is a meticulous task. Only 60 per cent (9,205 tonnes per day) of the total collected plastic waste is recycled, while the fate of the remaining 40 per cent is not accounted.

Currently, India is reeling under the marine debris crisis, which poses serious threats to its particularly rich marine biodiversity. Some 15,343 tonnes of waste dumped in the south Asian seas daily are generated from 60 major Indian cities, according to UNEP.

Some initiatives

The Ministry of Earth Sciences, through its attached office National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR), has undertaken beach clean-up initiatives, awareness programmes and beach litter quantification studies at regular intervals.

Many studies have been conducted across coastal states and Union Territories Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep. NCCR has initiated monitoring of the temporal and spatial distribution of marine litter along the Indian coasts and adjacent seas in 2018, 2019 and 2021. 

Marine litter is spread along the entire water column. High quantities of sediments are noticed during monsoon due to their spread into coastal water through creeks/rivers/estuaries, the research indicated.

An average of 0.98 metric tonnes of trash per km stretch of coastline, averaging a weight concentration of 0.012 kilograms per metre square, accumulated along the Indian coastline, noted Swachh Sagar, Surakshit Sagar campaign, 2022.

Key finding of campaign:

S.N Marine litter item type / categories % Contribution of marine litter number in different category % Contribution of marine litter weight in different category
1 Plastics 55-57 30-31
2 Foam Plastic 0-2 0-2
3 Fabric 0-2 0-2
4 Paper 2-3 0-2
5 Glass 0-2 1-3
6 Religious materials 40-41 60-68

Previous estimates indicated that only 9 per cent of the plastics produced are recycled, leaving nine billion tonnes in our landfills, oceans, and ecosystems.

Attempts made by some organisations in rescuing marine species from the debris are worth mentioning. TREE Foundation, a Chennai-based non-profit, has been incessantly working on this.

Their efforts on this front have shed light on the magnitude of the problem of ghost nets.

Over the last 20 years, through a multi-disciplinary approach involving people from all sections of society — particularly unemployed youth from artisanal fishing communities, the foundation has saved and released more than 3,101,000 Olive Ridley turtles.

“We formed a 363-member Sea Turtle Protection Force, recruited from 222 coastal villages across the east coast of India,” said Supraja Dharini, chairperson and founder of TREE Foundation.

In June 2021, she spearheaded a ghost net retrieval programme by incentivising fishermen who retrieved 57,353 kgs of ghost nets from the sea.

Way forward

Here are some suggestions for managing marine litter in a better way.

  • The National Marine litter Policy of India, announced in 2018, should be formulated.
  • Marine litter and microplastics distribution and characterisation study should be conducted across the Indian coast.
  • A forum of coastal cities should be created for ensuring cross-learning ecosystem and to build a synergetic association of urban local bodies and local administration located on the coast.
  • A long-term vision plan should be developed for promoting partnerships among coastal towns, cities and urban administration for the reduction of marine litter and the creation of sustainable waste management ecosystems. Initiatives like a multi-stakeholder approach that will recognise knowledge, expertise, technology, research, capacity building and advocacy as key drivers to safeguard life below water can be beneficial.
  • Regular beach clean-up and awareness programmes should be conducted instead of annual ones. 
  • Many states claim Single Use Plastic above 50 microns is banned, but on the ground, the ban is not effective. Steps can be taken to execute such legislations.

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