Question – The most widespread problems affecting marine ecology are plastic pollution and the lack of a holistic approach. Discuss. – 12 December 2021
The problem of increasing plastic in the ocean has taken a serious form in recent years. According to the United Nations Environment Organization (UNEP), more than half of the plastic waste that enters the ocean comes from just five countries, four of which are from Southeast Asia. According to a report by the United Nations, there is no holistic approach or policy regarding packaging in this sector, due to which this problem is increasing. In India too, plastic and micro-plastic waste enters other major rivers, including the Ganges, and from there makes its way into the oceans.
More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, half of which is used to design single-use items such as shopping bags, cups and straws. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. About 12% gets burnt while 79% gets stored in landfills. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at least 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year.
Concerns related to marine plastic waste:
- One of the most visible and disturbing effects of marine plastics is the ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of hundreds of marine species.
- Sea creatures such as seabirds, whales, fish and turtles prey on plastic waste and most of them starve to death as their stomachs fill with plastic debris.
- They also suffer from wounds, infections, loss of ability to swim and internal injuries. Floating plastics also contribute to the spread of invasive marine organisms and bacteria, which disrupt ecosystems.
- Several chemicals used in the production of plastic materials are known to be carcinogenic and interfere with the body’s endocrine system, causing developmental, reproductive, neurological and immunological disorders in both humans and wildlife.
- Plastics also contribute to global warming. If plastic waste is burnt, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which increases carbon emissions.
- Plastic waste clogs our sewers, poses a threat to marine life, and poses health risks to residents in landfills or natural environments.
- It is often seen that boats get caught in fishing nets or their engines get blocked by plastic debris. This can cause problems for industries such as shipping, fisheries, aquaculture and marine tourism, which affect the livelihoods of the coastal community.
- Along with the economic cost, the social cost of marine plastic waste is also very high. Residents of coastal areas suffer the most from the harmful health effects of plastic pollution and waste brought by the tide.
- Designing products: Identifying plastic items that can be replaced with non-plastic, recyclable or biodegradable materials. At the same time, all countries should adopt cyclical and sustainable economic practices in the plastic value chain.
- Pricing of products: Plastics are of low value which provides little economic incentive to employ recycled plastics. Balancing the value structure with environmental health should be a priority.
- Encouraging a plastic-free workplace: All single-use items can be replaced with recyclables or more sustainable single-use alternatives.
- Determining Manufacturer’s Responsibility: Extended responsibility can be applied in the retail (packaging) sector, where producers are responsible for assembling and recycling the products they launch into the market.
- Municipal and community action: beach and river clean-up, public awareness campaigns and a ban and fee on disposable plastic bags.