Managing microplastic pollution is important for meeting sustainable development goals in India

Microplastics are a significant environmental problem and pose risks to marine life, terrestrial organisms and human health

By Moumita Karmakar
Published: Monday 24 July 2023
Microplastics are small particles of plastic measuring less than 5 mm in size, which can enter different ecosystems and pose risks to marine life, terrestrial organisms and human health. Photo: iStock

As the most populous country in the world with a population of 1.42 billion, India is facing a mammoth challenge of achieving United Nations-mandated sustainable development goals (SDG) by 2030. Access to water plays a critical role in all 17 SDGs either directly or indirectly. 

However, a significant environmental problem is microplastic pollution, which has not attracted attention as it is invisible. Therefore, it demands serious and immediate attention before it is too late. 

In India, the demand for water is rising due to rapid population growth, urbanisation and increasing pressure from agriculture, industry and the energy sector. Misuse, poor management of freshwater systems, contamination and overextraction of ground-water have amplified the water stress and deteriorated health of aquatic ecosystems. 

Read more: Plastic-free planet: ‘No ambition coalition’ hijacks Paris meet on Day 2

This, in turn, has affected human health, economic activities and threatens food and energy security. Urgent concerted efforts are required to shift the current trend of water use and misuse.

Over the past 300 years, over 85 per cent of the planet’s wetlands have been lost. Meeting drinking water, sanitation and hygiene targets by 2030 will require a fourfold increase in the pace of progress,” said the 2022 UN SDG report.

The UN established 17 SDGs in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These goals aim to address various global challenges and to achieve a more sustainable future. 

Water is central to our lives and livelihoods which include food, health and productive economy. It is essential to secure the planet’s water resources and have a reliable and uninterrupted supply of water to achieve SDGs and secure our future economy. 

Here are some SDGs that have direct and intricate relation with water:

  • SDG 2: Zero hunger 
  • SDG 3: Good health and well-being 
  • SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation 
  • SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy
  • SDG 14: Life below water 
  • SDG 15: Life on land 

Let us focus only on the key targets of SDG 6, which are: 

  • Achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. 
  • Improve water quality by reducing pollution and increasing water treatment. 
  • Increase water-use efficiency in all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater. 
  • Implement integrated water resources management to support the sustainable use of water resources. 
  • Protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes.

Access to clean water for every household is an ambitious goal set for India, as multiple stressors impact the water resources, starting from rivers, lakes, ponds, reservoirs and wetlands in India. 

Read more: Pan-African research networks are needed to manage continent’s plastic pollution threat

However, microplastics are contaminants of global environmental and economic concern. They can have a toxic effect on fish and other aquatic life, affecting humans in turn. 

Microplastics are small particles of plastic measuring less than five millimetres in size, which can enter different ecosystems and pose risks to marine life, terrestrial organisms and human health. 

Like the Anthropocene (human-dominated epoch), many scientists are using a new historical epoch, “The Plasticene”, due to the global distribution and abundance of microplastics. As the name suggests, microplastics are everywhere, from terrestrial ecosystems, to freshwater rivers, lakes, ponds, estuaries, seas and oceans, even in Antarctica. 

They can be generated from various sources, including the breakdown of larger plastic items, microbeads in personal care products and synthetic fibres from clothing. 

In India, several factors contribute to the microplastic pollution problem. Rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth have led to increased plastic consumption and waste generation.

Inadequate waste management systems, including limited recycling infrastructure and improper disposal practices, exacerbate the issue. Additionally, the country’s vast coastline and numerous rivers make it susceptible to the transport of microplastics from inland areas to the marine environment. 

Several studies have highlighted the presence of microplastics in various Indian ecosystems. Due to urban runoff and industrial discharge, both Ganga and Yamuna rivers have been found to carry significant loads of microplastics. 

Coastal regions, including popular tourist destinations, also face the problem of microplastic pollution. Furthermore, microplastics have been detected in seafood, indicating the potential for human exposure through the food chain. 

In many countries, scientific research is going on to understand the implications of microplastics. Microplastics are not only toxic for the ecosystems but also, they act as vectors to transport other toxic chemicals in the aquatic ecosystems. 

On an average, consumption of 131 litres of bottled water is equivalent to a consumption of 16,000 microplastics per year alone with drinking water. 

Municipal areas in India generate 133,760 metric tonnes per day (TPD) of municipal solid waste (MSW), of which only 91,152 TPD waste is collected and 25,884 TPD treated, of which only 9,250 TPD plastic waste recycled, according to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

Read more: My plastic marine litter or yours?

If this is the case, then India should focus on improving waste management infrastructure, promoting recycling and responsible consumption and raising awareness among the public and industries. 

In 2021, MoEFCC notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, which prohibited single-use plastic items by the end of 2022. The permissible thickness of plastic carry bags was increased from 50 to 75 microns and then 120 microns from December 31, 2022. 

However, it is essential to implement stricter regulations, enhance monitoring and research on microplastics and promote sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics.

Here are some legislation and policies related to the environment in India. 

It is important to note that managing microplastics is a complex task that requires interdisciplinary efforts from various stakeholders, including government bodies, research institutions, industries and the public. 

Read more: Indian Ocean island group chokes on 238 tonnes of plastic waste

Addressing microplastic pollution requires a comprehensive approach involving government agencies, industries, communities and individuals working together to reduce plastic waste and protect the environment. 

Mass awareness programmes and interdisciplinary research focusing on the basic sciences should be encouraged. The effect of microplastics on aquatic environments is an important research domain that needs government attention. 

Several nonprofits and civil society organisations are actively working to tackle the issue through research, advocacy and community engagement.

Moumita Karmakaris Assistant Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Shiv Nadar Institution of Excellence

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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