Plastic-clogged beaches and coasts may be unpleasant to view, but the real threat lies underwater. Every minute, over a million plastic bottles are purchased around the world, a number which is expected to grow by 20 per cent in 2021 (Laville et al, 2017). The enormity of plastic in our lives can be comprehended from the fact that the world has produced nearly 9 billion metric tonnes of plastic since 1950, when large-scale production of synthetic materials began. Out of which, 80 per cent ended up as waste. Only 9 per cent of the total plastic waste produced has been recycled—the rest is mounting up in landfills or littering the environment (Parker, 2017). The world’s plastic production has grown almost 8.6 per cent annually since 1950 to 2015 (ISO, 2016).
The vast amount of non-recycled plastic waste releases toxic leachates which harm both the air and the soil. If the current course continues, landfills will have 12 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste by 2050 (Parker, 2017). A large part of this plastic waste wittingly and unwittingly enters the ocean— computed at a whopping annual 8 million metric tonnes (Lytle, 2017).
Ocean currents accumulate plastic to create large patches of waste floating together. Multiple garbage patches have been discovered in the oceans, the most prominent one is located in the north of the Pacific Ocean, termed as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. A similar patch was discovered last year in the south of the Pacific Ocean, remotely 6,110 km from Latin America (Louis, 2017). This humongous waste burden is taking a toll on aquatic life.
It is estimated that plastic debris kills over 100,000 marine mammals every year, including millions of fishes and birds (Lytle, 2017). Plastics are often ingested by sea animals, exposing them to toxic substances, affecting their bodily functions, increasing the odds of illness and death. Multiple cases have been recorded where animals such as seals have ingested minute plastic particles and endured months and years of pain before they died (WAP, 2017).
Plastic equivalent to the contents of one garbage truck is dumped into our oceans every minute and it will double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050 if we continue on this path (Pennington, 2017). Thousands of cases come to light every year which showcase the horrors of ocean plastic waste endangering the lives of millions and millions of creatures. In one of the biggest effects of plastic indigestion, locals woke up to a dead grey whale on the shores of the Puget Sound, Washington in 2010. The autopsy revealed the presence of a multitude of plastic items in its stomach, including a pair of pants, a number of plastic bags, a golf ball and surgical gloves (NBC, 2010). The items may have led to a damaged digestive system of the animal, resulting in its death.
As per latest reports, the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is bigger than originally thought. It has been discovered that the patch is almost twice the size of France, spanning over 1.5 million sq. km. The new numbers are over 16 times greater than the previous estimates and have caused a stir among the analysts and the decision-makers (Guardian, 2018).
In an effort to address the danger posed by marine plastics, the United Nations with all its 193 member countries, including India, Australia, Vietnam and the United States is actively attempting to curb the use and mismanagement of plastics, particularly marine plastics. Continuing on the path paved by the Paris agreement in 2015, the United Nations Environment Assembly under United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) passed a resolution in December 2017 in Nairobi, intended to end plastic marine pollution. The participating nations will work together to eradicate marine plastic pollution. Although there is no legal agreement as of now, such initiatives can pave the way for one (Russell et al, 2017).
China, which was identified as the world’s top contributor to marine plastic has started exploring measures to mitigate the use of plastic materials (Qin, 2018). The second largest producer of plastic waste, Indonesia also pledges to reduce the dumping of plastic waste into the ocean by 75 per cent by 2025 (Harrabin, 2017). While many other countries have also started pondering over the issue, a treaty, critics argue, can take years to come into action, before it even starts delivering results.