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Controlling Marine Litter is a big Challenge, say Experts

Global research estimates that about 80% of marine litter comes from land-based mismanagement of solid waste that reaches the ocean bed through various land-to-sea pathways.

Image Courtesy: Flickr

Patna/Delhi: Experts say that controlling the increasing marine litter is a big challenge in the coastal belt in India and South Asia.

Global research estimates that about 80% of marine litter comes from land-based mismanagement of solid waste that reaches the ocean bed through various land-to-sea pathways. The remaining 20% is the contribution of coastal settlements.

About 90% of all the waste in the marine ecosystem is plastics.

"Marine litter is a serious transboundary issue. Eight million tonnes of plastic waste from 192 countries that have a coastline go into our oceans every year. With a 7,000-plus km coastline, India has a role to play in controlling this menace," said Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), at a national consultation workshop at Nimli in Alwar, Rajasthan.

Narain said out of 460 million tonnes (MT) of global plastic production, close to 353 MT comes back as plastic waste – 8 MT (2.26%) of which is leaked into the marine ecosystem.

To deal with this problem, a National Coalition of Coastal Cities, which will focus on combatting the scourge of marine litter across the country, was launched at the workshop organised and spearheaded by CSE.

Another expert Atin Biswas, programme director of the solid waste management unit, CSE, said the extent of the litter in South Asian seas is a matter of particular concern. Estimates indicate that about 15,434 tonnes of plastic waste are leaked into South Asian seas daily, accounting for a colossal 5.6 MT of plastic waste yearly.

According to CSE's release, tourist and beach litter are one of the most common sources of marine litter. Most of these wastes comprise multi-layered and low-value plastics, polystyrene, plastic products like cutlery and carry bags, cigarette butts, etc. These wastes are either not collected or are mismanaged and eventually leak into the oceans through the stormwater drainage system, canals and small and big rivers. A large amount of footwear waste comprising of soles, synthetic bases and cloth bases is also found in India's marine litter.

The other contributors to marine litter include fishing communities (mostly fishing gear), flood waters, discharge of untreated municipal sewage, automobile and industrial waste generated at the coasts and waste from shipbreaking yards.

CSE researchers point out that in India, the estimated extent of marine litter is about 0.98 metric tonnes of trash/km stretch of the coastline, with a concentration of 0.012 kg/square metre, said Siddharth G Singh, programme manager of solid waste management unit, CSE.

"Tributaries of major Indian rivers are the pathways that carry around 15-20% of plastic waste into the marine environment."

India's 7,517 km coastline across nine states and 66 coastal districts is home to about 250 million people. The coastline has 486 census towns and 36 class I towns. It also hosts 12 major and 185 minor ports. India is the world's second-largest fish-producing nation, with about 2,50,000 fishing boats, 40,00,000 fisherfolk and 3,600 fishing villages. India's coastline also has a rich biodiversity, protected by about 4,120 km of mangroves.

The CSE's researchers said one of the key challenges worldwide is Abandoned, Lost or Discarded Fishing Gear (ALDFG). A large part of ALDFG is lost in deep seas, making it difficult to recover. India has 174,000 units of fishing gear in operation, of which 154,008 are gillnets/driftnets, 7,285 are traps, and the rest are fishing lines. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), India loses 15,276 tonnes of gillnets annually.

"In 2021, 58,000 kg of ghost net was recovered from the beaches and the ocean bed. The scale of the threat can be gauged from the fact that out of 1,000 eggs laid by a female turtle, only 10 can convert into adult turtles because of marine litter and ghost nets," Biswas said.

Biswas said considering the complexity and scale of the problem, CSE felt the need to focus on marine litter as a matter of planning priority for local governments.

Among the key problems that this national workshop has identified is an absence of adequate research-driven data; the lack of synergy in policy and practice among institutions connected to the causes of marine litter; and a need – as yet unmet -- for investment in communication strategy to engage with citizens, fishing communities and industrial establishments.

"Since the problem has strong connections with the management of plastic waste on land, policies like the single-use plastic ban and EPR (extended producer responsibility) need to be enforced stringently," Singh said.

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