Science & Technology

This World Oceans Day let’s talk about marine litter  

Environmental issues in the sea affect the coasts and the lands they surround & vice versa

By Danja Hoehn
Published: Wednesday 08 June 2022
फोटो : वर्ल्ड वाइड फंड (डब्ल्यूडब्ल्यूएफ)

It’s estimated that 100,000 turtles and marine mammals, such as dolphins, whales and seals, are now killed by plastic marine litter every year around the world. Plastics are the most common man-made objects sighted at sea, with an estimate of 18,000 pieces of plastic litter floating on every square kilometre of the world’s oceans.

The problem is getting worse. By 2050 there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastics in landfills or the natural environment. Estimates show that 4.8-12.7 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year from land-based sources.

Plastics are now everywhere we don’t want them to be: In every ocean, from the tropics to the pole, intertidal to the deep seas, and at different trophic levels. It is hard to imagine our lives without plastic as it is used in most everyday life items, and it is equally hard to imagine how we can tackle the level of damage it causes to the global environment.

Is recycling the answer? Sometimes. Not all plastic can be recycled because it depends on the material it is made off or it is too difficult or expensive to do so.

The chain effect

When we talk about marine litter, what do we mean? It’s any man-made, long-lasting solid material that humans have incorrectly disposed of and that has ended up on the beach, in estuaries, rivers, seas and ocean.

It is made of many materials including plastic, rubber, paper, processed wood, textiles, metal, and glass, ceramic and sometimes a mix of them. The very slow rate of degradation of most marine litter items, mainly plastics, together with the continuously growing quantity of the litter and debris disposed is leading to a gradual increase in marine litter found at sea and on the shores. 

Marine litter threatens ecosystems, affects public health and negatively impacts fishery and tourism industries around the globe. It tricks wildlife: Animals can easily get trapped in plastic bags or discarded fishing gear, or they mistake plastic for their food and it enters the food chain.

Larger plastic particles get broken down into smaller particles through degradation, forming lots of micro plastics which become the carrier of a range of contaminants. Heavy metals and pathogens are contaminants that can be ingested by organisms and introduced to the food chain.

In recent years, combined efforts from scientists and media have increased the awareness of marine pollution in the general public, with many people recycling their waste and taking note of the alarming consequences of marine pollution. Understanding the source, distribution, and dynamics of plastics is important to target priority areas to implement mitigation policies.

India’s measures 

India is taking strong measures to tackle the menace of marine litter. In 2021, the Government of India prohibited the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of several single-use plastic items like plastic flags, plates, cups, spoons and straws from July this year.

The Government of India has already banned the import of plastic waste in the country. Many states and Union Territories have gone further, banning identified single-use plastic items like decorative styrofoam / thermocol plastic, cups, glasses, flags, earbuds, candy and ice-cream sticks — all plastic which is less than 100 microns in thickness.

The UK-India Intervention

The Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and India agreed a ‘Roadmap 2030’ last year, which sets out an ambitious framework for UK and India partnerships in a wide range of science disciplines, including marine science. Using the Roadmap as a guide, both countries are bringing their brightest scientists and innovators together to address water pollution and find innovative solutions to tackling plastic and marine pollution. 

Under the Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP), the UK’s Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences (CEFAS) and India’s National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR) launched a pilot project to understand deteriorating sea water quality due to marine litter. 

The project successfully delivered technology-sharing through a micro plastic sampling pump, loaned by CEFAS to NCCR, three scientific cruises off the Chennai-Puducherry coast, with 300 water and sediment samples collection and joint analysis; it published three joint research papers, led to capacity-building of four NCCR staff and community engagement by producing environmental educational packs for various levels of schooling in different languages in India in collaboration with India’s Centre for Environment Education (CEE).  

Under CLiP, the UK has partnered with India for a longer term and channelled the efforts to facilitate the creation of a strong science evidence base to inform India’s National Marine Litter Strategy. 

This collaborative research on Marine Litter and micro plastics will help to inform policies and management strategies in the future. The initiative has also paved the way for an MoU between the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs / Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences which will enable the UK and India to launch larger scale marine science programmes in the future.

The UK’s commitment:

The UK has made ‘nature’ a top priority in the COP26 Presidency year alongside taking strong action to subdue climate change. The UK is also leading the Global Ocean Alliance: 30by30 initiative which aims to protect 30 per cent of all land and water by 2030. The UK continues to drive international support for nature-based solutions that address biodiversity loss, climate change and poverty, co-sponsoring a resolution on their benefits and how to scale them up.

The health of our oceans is of utmost importance. The marine pollution and effects of climate change on the biodiversity of our seas will not go away unless we take concerted, collective action.

These challenges do not fit into neat borders or geographies — marine litter is everyone’s problem; environmental issues in the sea affect the coasts and the lands they surround, and vice versa.

This is why the UK and India are working on a suite of initiatives — The Oceans Country Partnership Programme that supports the sustainable management of India’s marine environment, 30by30 partnership, Twin cities Initiative to mitigate flow of plastics from land to sea, and joint deep sea expeditions on biodiversity. These initiatives aim to keep our marine ecosystems healthy and preserve the rich biodiversity of the seas for future generations. 

Views expressed are the author’s and need not necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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