Devil in the deep sea

Devil in the deep sea


Plastic, the world’s most seasoned traveller, journeys from the beaches, drains and landfills to make its way from coast to coast, before ending up in the gyres or circular sea currents near the poles. During this journey, the average plastic bag poses a threat to a host of sea animals, observes Divya Karnad

A walk on the beach in the Andaman Islands helps the sore-eyed traveller discover many new, interesting sights, but at every turn is a familiar scene. The fringes of the beach and the roots of mangrove trees are covered with the multi-coloured evidence of human existence.

One of the most omnipresent things on earth, plastic, is affecting another of the world’s most ubiquitous features – our oceans. Besides creating eyesores in tropical paradises like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the fate of the plastics we use is as thrilling, chilling and saddening as a non-fiction murder mystery. The fact that it is a very real problem, not only to our environment but also to ourselves, is a distant cry from the casual way plastics are used and discarded globally.

Most plastics are single-use products with a long life. The plastic that goes into wrapping sweets, cookies or chocolates, are a death trap for whales, sea turtles and birds.

As the world’s most seasoned traveller, plastic leaves beaches, drains and landfills, and makes its way from coast to coast until it ends up in the gyres or circular sea currents near the poles.

During its journey, the average plastic bag meets a host of sea creatures, which are at risk from its presence in their environment. Mistaking floating plastic for jellyfish or other treats, sea turtles and whales may consume the indigestible polymer, which remains in their gut, blocking intestines and forcing them to starve to death.

Sharks, rays, seabirds, sometimes even dugongs and whales get entangled in floating plastic, forcing them to stop swimming or preventing them from coming up for air. Plastics are known to affect 267 large marine species and expected to affect hundreds of smaller sea creatures. With over 300 million tonnes of plastic produced globally every year, as much as India’s entire annual food production, the ocean’s plastic problems are mounting.

Marine mortality

As morbid evidence of the effect of such plastic death-traps floats to the shore, scientists across the world have begun to take notice of plastic-related marine mortality.

In 2009, 60 scientists put together a report on the effects of plastic on wildlife. This report, brought out in a special edition of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, discussed not only these visible, direct impacts, but also several underlying health issues connected with plastic.

With concerns about marine pollution and its impact on species, particularly through absorption into living tissues, at an all time high, several marine species are banned for consumption in countries like the USA. Whales and oysters alike are known to contain lethal levels of heavy metals like mercury in their flesh. Several whales are also known to have ingested plastics, which in turn are known to absorb hydrophobic pollutants.

These complex interactions between toxins within living organisms are still being studied, but preliminary findings suggest that the outlook is not good.

The 2009 report suggests that while the actual mass of plastic debris in the environment may not be increasing as much as it was before, this is possibly because the size of the individual plastic molecule has declined.

Microscopic fragments of plastic invisible to the naked eye have reached the remotest and deepest parts of our world. Deep sea explorations have revealed both obvious plastic waste, and invisible plastic contamination of ocean abysses.

Components used in plastics, such as phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) have been detected not only in animals, but also in humans.

Their effects, particularly on unborn and young animals and children, can have serious consequences for hormone balance, reproduction and physiology. These compounds occur most densely around urban centres, particularly in fast-developing countries like India and China, but these have also been detected as far away as uninhabited oceanic islands and in the Southern Ocean. There are up to  3,520,000 items km–2 at the ocean surface, which have the potential to block out sunlight, prevent photosynthesis by plankton and affect basic marine ecosystem functioning. Much of this plastic eventually ends up in the Northern Gyre, home to several critically endangered temperate species like the Steller’s sea lion, or the Sargasso Sea, home to much of the Atlantic’s juvenile fish.

Plastics in India

In India, every monsoon flushes a new load of plastic into our seas. Before we can find ways of disposing of plastics, we are already finding new uses for this polymer, forcing petrochemical industries to produce more plastic every year.

There is no systematic plastic disposal legislation, with only a few states like Himachal Pradesh taking the lead in banning non-biodegradable plastic in 1995. However, the merit of such laws lies in their enforcement.

While the use of plastic has been banned before, in several cities like Chennai and Bangalore, they continue to litter the streets and waterways. Recycling of plastic wastes is generally an informal industry, with very little effort on the part of municipal or government authorities to separate or segregate recyclable and non-recyclable wastes.

There are only about 1,800 plastic recycling units across India, with Tamil Nadu leading
the way. The Indian Centre for Plastics in the Environment (ICPE) is a nodal agency recognised by the Government of India that deals with issues related to plastics and environment in the country.

This agency was founded by the Chemicals and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association and Plast India Foundation (PIF) whose aim is to develop and increase the market for products from the plastic industry in the country. The ICPE charter states that they intend to increase the eco-friendly image of plastic by highlighting its positive role in conserving resources and its recyclable nature. There is no mention of human health risks and clinical trials for the same.

Changing outlook

Some government agencies are taking strides towards modernising the country’s outlook towards the environment. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests tested biodegradable plastics in 2009.

They found that even companies advertising their products as biodegradable plastic were producing only up to 67 per cent biodegradable products, and did not meet the minimum criteria of being classified as “biodegradable”. While their products were fragmented by light, the actual fragments were not degraded, but simply became invisible, eventually accumulating in the ocean. The average hotel or shop used only four per cent biodegradable plastic.

While research on 100 per cent biodegradable polymers is still being conducted, the CPCB acknowledges the possibility of its use, in spite of its cost being two-ten times higher than existing plastics. They cite the lack of a legal framework and research prioritisation on this subject within India as the reason for biodegradable plastics not receiving the attention that they should.

The onus is on the consumer to avoid plastics as much they can. Writing to processed food companies to request them to reduce their food packaging, as well as individual action to avoid use of plastic bags is some immediate action that consumers can take to secure the future of the oceans. While the government still needs to play its part in encouraging the development of biodegradable plastic and creating stringently enforced rules about its use, every individual has a role to play in ensuring the future of the environment and themselves.

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