Bengaluru: Off the coast of Italy this week, a pregnant whale was found dead with over 20 kg of plastic in its stomach. The plastic clogged up its intestines and prevented nutrients from getting absorbed. Marine biologists who dissected the 26 foot-long animal found fishing nets, plastic bags, plastic plates “like those we have in our homes”, and even plastic pipes.
Just last month, another whale had died off the coast of the Philippines with 40 kg of plastic in its stomach.
This increasingly alarming trend of whales dying of ingested plastic is nothing new. Just last year, whales died in Thailand after swallowing 8 kg of plastic bags, in Spain after swallowing 29 kg of plastic, in Indonesia after swallowing over 1,000 pieces of plastic, and countless others that were probably never found.
Whales and other animals do not consume plastic on purpose. Rather, they are tricked into it. Floating plastic or shimmering plastic bags in deep waters resemble animal prey — a plastic bag deep under the surface of water resembles a squid that whales eat, clear plastic bags look like jellyfish and attract sea turtles, floating plastic colonised by algae emit the same smell as krill which is food for sea birds, and tiny fish eat grain-sized plastics because they resemble small creatures that are their food.
Furthermore, there are countless animals that die in the oceans from being stuck in nets and strangled by plastic. It is estimated that up to 700 marine species could be lost to plastic pollution.
Perhaps the first step any nation can take to tackle plastic pollution is to drastically cut down the use of single-use plastic — water bottles, disposable ‘paper’ cups, and most famously, straws. Single-use plastics also take the shape of ‘ghost gear’ or abandoned fishing gear in the oceans. It is estimated that each year, a mind-boggling 640,000 tonnes of lost and abandoned fishing gear and equipment is added to the ocean.
In fact, there is a floating ‘island’ of plastic, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which consists of over 79,000 tonnes of plastic spread out over 1.6 million square kilometres.
Apart from getting tangled in it, the ingestion of plastic results in chronic hunger among marine creatures. Often, animals that die because of plastic in their stomachs die of starvation — the plastic tends to cover intestines, and prevents food from being digested. Furthermore, as was the case in last month’s dead whale in the Philippines, the plastic makes an animal feel full but provides no nutrients. Biologists have observed in several whales and mammals that plastic can get compacted enough to actually calcify. This makes the animals feel full, while actually sapping their energy and making them lose weight.
The global production of plastic doubles every 11 years. In 1960, plastic was found in the stomachs of less than 5 per cent of sea birds. By 1980, the number had already jumped to 80 per cent. This is because birds often hunt fish by skimming the surface of water with their beaks, and end up gathering large quantities of plastic. Between 1950 and 2010, the world lost 67 per cent of its sea bird population.
Today, plastic is found in nearly 100 per cent of all sea birds.
Awareness is spreading
Several countries across the globe have taken steps to bring down the production and consumption of single-use plastics. As of December 2018, 127 countries have taken steps to ban single-use plastics. The phrase ‘single-use’ was selected as Word of the Year by the Collins Dictionary in 2018.
The very first country to ban single-use plastic shopping bags was Bangladesh in 2002, and as of today, 62 other countries ban it at varying levels of usage, including India, which followed Bangladesh the same year.
Major metros like New York City and Los Angeles have banned plastic straws, and paper-straw manufacturers have seen a major growth in their businesses. Twenty-seven countries have placed a tax on plastic bag production, 30 countries charge extra plastic tax, and 26 countries have plastic collection centres that offer payment in exchange for returning plastic.
The situation in India
In India, the production of plastic bags thinner than 20 micrometres was banned in 2002, although the enforcement is not uniform. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change then raised the thickness level on the banned plastic bags, forbidding production of bags less than 50 micrometres thick in 2016.
Himachal Pradesh was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags in 2003. Sikkim banned the use of plastic water bottles, food containers, and the major offender, styrofoam. Karnataka followed suit in 2016, banning plastic bags, banners, flags, plates, cups, spoons, sheets, and styrofoam. Goa and Maharashtra implemented their own ban, as did Tamil Nadu from January 2019.
But bans don’t always work as they are supposed to; a legal loophole means PET bottles are being imported in increasing quantities into the country, and a lax administration at regional levels meant that only 14 of 35 regional pollution boards filed information on plastic production in 2018. This implies that while the reported generation of plastic was 660,787.85 tonnes in 2017-18, the actual estimate could be as high as 1.6 million tonnes.
This plastic comes in other hidden forms too. One of the biggest types of plastic pollution is micro-plastic: Thousands and millions of tiny particles of plastic which are both created in small sizes as well as residual chips of degrading plastic.
In 2014, it was estimated that over 50 trillion pieces of micro-plastic were in the ocean, weighing 236,000 tonnes. And 80 per cent of micro-plastics in the ocean come from sources on land like bottles and bags.
The sources for micro-plastic are all around us — a lot of the synthetic clothes we wear, such as rayon, polyester and nylon, are made of tiny micro-fibres. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 microfibres leave our clothes every time wash them, and over 100,000 marine animals consume them.
Toothpaste and face exfoliants often contain micro-beads, thousands of tiny beads of plastic. A single pack of face wash could contain up to 300,000 of these beads, which are then ingested by fish, and end up travelling up the food chain to enter human foods. These plastics leech toxins into each subsequent animal, causing health hazards to multiple species along the way.
Unfortunately, fighting micro-plastics is a lot harder than single-use objects, owing to their ubiquitous nature and invisible presence in all aspects of human life.
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