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Plastics Pollution: A New Common Concern of Humankind?

Blue ocean (environmental policy and law)

16 April 2020 | Amsterdam, NL – The most viewed Environmental Policy and Law article so far this year is one that focuses on the peril of plastic and its impact on the oceans. It is a frightening prospect that if no action is taken, by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the global seas. Drastic action needs to be taken to combat coastal litter and rid the oceans of microplastics in order to return them to being haven for marine life.

[Posted by: Carmel McNamara, IOS Press]

Amsterdam, NL – The most viewed Environmental Policy and Law article so far this year is one that focuses on the peril of plastic and its impact on the oceans. It is a frightening prospect that if no action is taken, by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the global seas. Drastic action needs to be taken to combat coastal litter and rid the oceans of microplastics in order to return them to being haven for marine life.

Marine Litter and Microplastics

Today, plastic debris or litter in the ocean is an environmental problem on a global scale. Microplastics – small particles or fragments of plastic measuring less than 5 mm in diameter – have exacerbated both the problem and the challenge of response. The transboundary movement of plastic marine litter and microplastics is becoming a major concern as the durability of plastics means that they remain intact for a long time and spread throughout the oceans. In fact, many tons of plastic debris (that can vary in size from large containers and fishing nets to microscopic plastic pellets or particles) are discarded every year, polluting lands, rivers, coasts, beaches and oceans. It was revealed recently that single-use plastic has even reached the world’s deepest ocean trench when a plastic bag was found in the Mariana Trench situated at 10,898 m below the surface. A vast proportion of the fish in the sea are now believed to have plastic in them. They think it is food and eat it, just as seabirds feed plastic to their chicks. Some of this is released as excrement and ends up sinking on to the seabed. Eventually, it enters our food chain and, in time, our bodies. Akin to the menace of acid rain in 20th century Europe, the planet Earth is slowly being covered with plastic in the 21st century.

 

plastic on a beach

 

The Need to Make Choices

It is indeed a matter of serious concern that no part of the planet is free from the scourge of plastic wastes. Many countries are saddled with mountains of water containers, supermarket bags, polystyrene lumps, compact discs, cigarette filter tips, nylons and other plastics. Some are in the form of microscopic grains, others in lumps. The impact is often highly damaging. Even the polar regions, generally considered to be pristine zones, are now getting affected by plastics as is the case with mountain areas and rivers where tourists and rafters leave a trail of plastics behind, even on Mount Everest.

In this context, the 2018 WED theme of “Beat Plastic Pollution” is a robust call for action to combat one of the greatest environmental challenges of our times. The theme invites all to consider how to make changes to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, wildlife and human health. It challenges us to make simple yet informed choices (e.g., carrying reusable shopping bags, coffee mugs, water bottles, etc.) and to support innovative measures, as exemplified by a canal tour company in Amsterdam which has initiated a campaign called “Plastic Fishing”, which engages tourists as volunteers to catch floating plastic in fishing nets. In another example, there is an age-old tradition in West Bengal, India of using small cups made of clay (bhars) that serves as a natural alternative to disposable paper or plastic cups.

Having been the global host for 2018 WED, India now needs to lead the way by making concerted efforts to clean its rivers and beaches cluttered with piles of plastic litter. Its Plastic Waste Management Rules 201634 are a useful contribution to these efforts. Section 5 of the Rules talks about plastic waste management:

  • plastic waste, which can be recycled, shall be channelized to registered plastic waste recyclers and recycling of plastic shall conform to the Indian Standard: IS 14534:1998 titled as Guidelines for Recycling of Plastics, as amended from time to time;
  • local bodies shall encourage the use of plastic waste (preferably the plastic waste which cannot be further recycled) for road construction as per Indian Road Congress guidelines or energy recovery or waste to oil etc. The standards and pollution control norms specified by the prescribed authority for these technologies shall be complied with;
  • thermo set plastic waste shall be processed and disposed off as per the guidelines issued from time to time by the Central Pollution Control Board; and
  • the inert from recycling or processing facilities of plastic waste shall be disposed of in compliance with the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2000 or as amended from time to time.

A recent decision by the National Green Tribunal banning the use of plastic bags of less than 50 microns also shows that modest legal measures are underway. However, their success will depend upon corresponding changes in societal attitudes and habits. A New “Common Concern”? Banning plastic products is not the solution as plastic plays an important role in the daily lives of people and the economy. It performs multiple functions that can help in taking care of a number of societal challenges in many countries especially those with emerging economies. Light and innovative materials in cars or planes could save fuel and cut CO2 emissions. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste. Combined with 3D printing, biocompatible plastic materials can save human lives by enabling medical innovation. However, the problem lies in the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded.

Emphasising Re-use

The mantra of “if you can’t reuse it, refuse it” provides a practical approach to combating the plastics menace. It calls for active engagement from governments, the public, civil society and the private sector in the fight against plastic pollution. One hopes that wiser counsels will prevail to save us from the frightening prospects that if no action is taken, by 2050, there could be more plastics than fish in the oceans! The time has come to address the simmering challenge of plastics pollution as one of the “common concerns of humankind” together with climate change, loss of biological diversity and desertification. The concerted norm-setting processes currently underway would need to swiftly crystallise in the form of a legally binding multilateral treaty as an institutionalised global response to face the challenge of plastics pollution.

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The above is an extract from the article "Plastics Pollution: A New Common Concern of Humankind" written by Balraj K. Sidhui (Indian Institute of Technology) and and Bharat H. Desai (Jawaharlal Nehru University).

Published in: Environmental Policy and Law, Vol.48, Iss.5, pp. 252–255.