South Asia takes pride in being home to stunning beaches. It boasts a multitude of marine species and coral reefs. But are we, as South Asians, doing our part in protecting our marine natural treasures?
South Asia produces 334 million tons of solid waste a year, making it the second-largest contributor globally. About 70–80% of this waste makes its way into the sea, with around 12% of it being plastic. Without action, the region is predicted to be the fastest-growing contributor to plastic pollution over the next two decades, reaching an alarming amount of 661 million tons a year.
Plastic has unfortunately made its way into society as a principal necessity in all activities. It’s found everywhere, from the guts of the fish caught in Goa to the snowdrops falling down in the mountains of Nepal. Bottles, bags, wrappers, utensils. It’s a persistent problem that seems to be a part of everything we encounter, ranking plastic pollution as the number one environmental concern in Asia.
The ocean now carries the burden of hosting over 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic and 24 trillion micro-plastics. A shocking number of 8 million pieces of plastic enter the ocean each day, with around 14 million tons leaking in per year. Plastic is currently the most abundant type of litter in the sea, with its damage consisting of 80% of marine debris, spanning from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.
So why is plastic such a widespread issue? Plastic is a synthetic polymer that can be utilized in many ways, such as packaging, household items, construction, vehicles, electronics, and agriculture. 300 million of them are produced annually, with half of it accounting for single-use plastic items such as straws, cups, spoons, and bags. These items are persistent in the environment and can take up to 500 years or more to decompose. Marine plastic pollutants are mostly land-based. These include plastic stemming from illegal dumping, sewer overflows, urban water runoff, littering, and industrial activities. Ocean-based plastic pollutants mainly arise from fishing and aquaculture activities. Plastics that find their way into the ocean are influenced by natural factors like wind, currents, and UV radiation, which cause them to break down into small particles called micro-plastics (smaller than 5 mm) or nano-plastics (smaller than 100 nm). This makes it easily ingestible by marine organisms. The most visible impacts of plastic debris on marine animals are ingestion, suffocation, and entanglement, which cause disastrous effects like starvation, lacerations, infections, inability to swim, and internal injuries. Floating plastics contribute to the spread of invasive marine species, thereby negatively affecting biodiversity.
Turtle entangled in a fishing net
Plastic recovered from the guts of a fish
It is not just animals that are impacted by marine plastic pollution. We as humans suffer the most. Our ocean’s health is inevitably reflected in our health. Micro-plastics are ever present in every sample collected from all oceans, explaining why they are also found in consumables such as beer, salt, seafood, and tap water. Chemicals found within plastic are extremely cancerous and hazardous. It is unbelievable that traces of it were recently discovered in a sample of the human placenta.
Its impacts on tourism are numerous, as plastic lingers along every beach of every continent, decreasing its aesthetic value and negatively affecting the country’s image and economy.
Climate change is largely resulted in because of plastic, as the burning of plastic results in the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Many South Asian countries lack the infrastructure needed to reduce plastic such as proper incineration and sanitary landfill facilities, good systems for the management & disposal of waste, and recycling capacity. The region’s transboundary rivers act as highways for plastic pollution to flow from its mountains to the ocean. In an experiment done by NATGEO, a plastic bottle dropped into the Ganges River traveled 2845 kilometers in just 94 days. The Indus River System connecting Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan and the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna River System connecting Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Bhutan are among the top five most polluted globally making them express channels for plastic to pass from land to sea.
So, is there any hope for South Asia? What are the solutions?
Although, South Asia is considered the least integrated and most uncooperative region in the world, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have united to combat a problem faced by all – marine plastic pollution.
Even though these countries pioneered globally to introduce bans on single-use plastic starting with India in 1998 and followed by Bangladesh (2002), Bhutan (2005), Afghanistan (2011), Nepal(2011), Sri Lanka (2011), Pakistan (2013) and Maldives (2016), these attempts have been highly unsuccessful. Ironically, the increase in single-use plastics has been abnormally exponential. In 1982, a regional organization known as the South Asian Cooperative Environment Programme was established primarily for cohesive environmental issues including marine plastic pollution. In 2019, it created the world’s first regional marine litter action plan as well as a regional solid waste management action plan that set out a policy framework to address marine pollution. The World Bank worked closely with the SACEP to launch the first-of-its-kind regional anti-plastic pollution project, a $50 million program named Plastic-free Rivers & Seas for South Asia which focuses on identifying, financing, and creating innovative solutions & regulatory policies.
The member states are taking small steps toward their goal. For example, Maldives is in the process of upcycling plastic waste into products such as sneakers and jerseys. Sri Lanka which faces a reduction in fish stocks due to aquatic pollution launched Suarakimu Ganga which was a national initiative to clean all its 103 rivers with hopes that their efforts may be positively mirrored in its oceans. It has also banned the manufacture or import of non-biodegradable plastic used to wrap food or make shopping bags since 2017. Pakistan came up with Clean Green Pakistan Movement, a concept based on ‘green jobs’- jobs that make minimal negative impacts on the environment.
Bhutan on the other hand is a master of innovation. They began to recycle plastic by using it to pave their roads. Nepal focuses more on recycling PET bottles by having plastic collection points in cities in order to segregate these bottles and repurpose them.
Panelists suggest the following solutions.
COVID-19 plastic waste is a new threat. Asia throws away around 1.8 million single-use facemasks a day thereby a need to encourage reusable and biodegradable facemasks is evident.
Use social media to change the public mindset to influence consumer and corporate behavior and push them to encourage an AIR approach to plastics– avoid, intercept, and redesign.
Addressing environmental issues in the school curriculum for grades 1-11, so that all youth are made aware of plastic pollution and are inspired to think of innovative solutions.
Encourage companies to adopt plastic-free policies by forming partnerships with governments, civil societies, supplies, and communities as change is an all-inclusive process.
Have manufacturing policies to limit plastic packaging aimed at forming a circular economy for plastics through innovative business models, designs, reprocesses, and materials with minimal leakage of plastic to the environment. Alternative packaging options should be explored.
Recycling is just a temporary solution. Redesigning material and use of plastic alternatives is vital.
As South Asian youth, what can we do?
Make it a habit to say NO to plastic whenever possible. Switch to using reusable containers and bottles.
Dispose of your litter in the correct categories. This makes the segregation process for recycling much easier.
Volunteer in environmental organizations and be part of a movement for change. Make yourself and those around you aware of the disastrous effects of plastic pollution.
South Asia’s oceans are choking on plastic. There’s a chance of our grandchildren not seeing turtles and whales in their lifetime. Is change possible? Yes. But if not you, then who? If not now, then when? Saying No to plastic starts today and it begins with You! Go Green and Think Blue!