Ocean Plastic – Turning the tide to take care of turtles

From a society’s perspective, plastic pollution is a symptom of a wider challenge to sustainable production and consumption. It is therefore relevant to approach the challenge through the heading of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this article, Dr. Gaurav BhatianiDirector (Energy and Environment) and Nutan ZarapkarDirector (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) share that to tackle plastic pollution, accelerating the adoption and deployment of technologies will require a change of mindset and new approaches to developing collaborations.

A study by scientists at the University of Queensland reports that more than half of turtles worldwide have ingested plastic. The number varies by species and ocean, but plastic pollution and its ingestion is a common global concern. Although the direct threat to human health has yet to be conclusively proven, there is ample evidence that plastic pollution is a clear and present danger and must be addressed through concerted and coordinated action on multiple fronts. From a society’s perspective, plastic pollution is a symptom of a wider challenge to sustainable production and consumption. It is therefore relevant to approach the challenge through the heading of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

India ranked low (120) in the recent Sustainable Development Index ranking published by the University of Cambridge1. The report lists several SDGs such as sustainable communities and cities, life on land, life below water, and good health and wellbeing, as “major challenges” for the country. Sustainable waste management is an underlying challenge common to several SDGs, as evidenced by the existence of the world’s largest open landfills in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Large populations often live close to them and a large informal sector exists and works in hazardous conditions.

Efforts to improve waste management began in 2014 (World Bank What a Waste 2.0)² with the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission. While the original aim was to reduce and eliminate open defecation, the importance of the scientific management of the various waste streams is now well recognized. Regulations were strengthened in 2016 and incentives were provided through central schemes. Nevertheless, change has been slow and there is growing recognition that the growing amount of waste requires urgent and decisive action, particularly to manage more difficult components such as non-recyclable and single-use plastic and e-waste. , among others.

The management of plastic waste, especially the non-recyclable component, is a major concern due to their large-scale use and their properties. Plastic is used from money to packaging to household appliances to sanitary napkins and more. It is present in almost everything we use. Its consumption and production have increased rapidly. In 1950, the world produced 2 million tons per year, which increased 200 times in 2015. Globally, to date, there are approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world, of which 6.3 billion tonnes of waste³. Discarded and untreated plastic waste spills onto the land, pours into bodies of water and ultimately into the seas and oceans. It seriously pollutes the environment and poses a serious threat to the ecosystem and its health.

India generates 15 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, but only a quarter of this is recycled due to an inadequate solid waste management system.

Recognizing the seriousness of the challenge, the plastic waste management rules of 2016 and 2018 were recently amended in February 2022 to focus on the rigorous implementation of extended producer responsibility. The Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 require producers of plastic waste to take steps to minimize the generation of plastic waste, not litter plastic waste and ensure separate storage of waste at source. The rules also place responsibility on local bodies, gram panchayats, waste generators, retailers, reinforced street vendors to manage plastic waste. The recent amendment further strengthened the extended producer responsibility guidelines covering (i) reuse; (ii) Recycling; (iii) Use of recycled plastic content; (iv) Disposal at end of life. The modified key enabled in the amendment includes:

  • Extended Producer Responsibility Certificates: The guidelines allow for the sale and purchase of surplus Extended Producer Responsibility Certificates. This will set up a market mechanism for brand owners to manage plastic waste.
  • Centralized online portal: The government has also called for the creation of a centralized online portal by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the registration as well as the filing of annual declarations by producers, importers and owners of brands, plastic waste processors of plastic packaging waste by March 31, 2022.
ocean plastic
Source: https://www.downtoearth.org.in

While political action is commendable, a comprehensive ecosystem encompassing technology, funding and stakeholder engagement is needed to address the interrelated challenges of reducing plastic use by developing alternatives, science-based management of waste on land to reduce the amount going to landfills and extract waste already present in bodies of water such as rivers and oceans.

Technologically, research and development has created several new alternatives to complement the traditional options, namely glass, steel, wood and plant materials such as leaves. These options include recyclable plastics (polylactic acid PLA for example) that are compostable and made from natural sources such as corn or sugarcane pulp, among others. Bioplastic made from lignin, a by-product of paper mills, is another promising material with multiple use cases such as replacing plastic, polyethylene and nylon.

Collecting floating plastic waste in the oceans is heavier and more complicated than collection on land. However, efforts are underway by technology players to test and commercialize ocean plastic waste management solutions. One such technology is Sea Robots. This aquatic drone “sweeps” plastic waste from the surface of the ocean using computer vision and remote sensing. Another upcoming application is a large-scale collection system for plastic waste in the form of fishing nets and ropes. This system collects 7,000 metric tons of raw materials for plastic recycling each year and uses them to develop strong nylon yarn that can be used in clothing, carpets and other textiles. This approach reduces ocean waste as well as pollution from textile manufacturing. Yet others are working to develop processes that convert plastic waste into a high-quality liquid, which can then be used to make new plastic products and chemicals.

While these new technologies show promise, it is more effective and efficient to manage plastic on the ground before it enters water bodies. While several waste-to-energy (WtE) plants have been developed, their cost is high and their performance less than satisfactory4. Unfortunately, the emphasis on WtE development has meant that the incineration of non-recyclable plastic in cement kilns remains underutilized. India is the second largest cement producer in the world with manufacturing facilities spread across many states. Moreover, incineration in cement kilns not only recycles the embodied energy extracted but also the material, leaving no residue, unlike WtE installations. Since cement factories require relatively minor investments to process the waste and are already equipped with emission monitoring systems, this low-cost option should be encouraged through policy and regulatory mechanisms. Such an approach need not be exclusive; that is, similar incentives can be provided to WtEs and cement kilns to enable the best possible option based on location and local circumstances. It is likely that larger metros and cities that are longer distances from cement plants will need WtE plants, but many cities may have a better alternative readily available in the form of a nearby cement kiln.

Accelerating technology adoption and deployment will require a shift in mindset and new approaches to developing collaborations. According to the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, “Marine debris – trash in our oceans – is a symptom of our throwaway society and our approach to how we use our natural resources” .

First, partner with citizens and local communities to ensure waste is minimized by using alternatives. Second, separate the waste at source and transport it as such. Third, involving the informal sector as a partner, developing business models and collaborative local solutions will further enable this transition. Fourth, there is a need to address governance challenges in the sector. Often, last mile managers engage in unethical practices that undermine the viability of investments and threaten the environment and the health of citizens. Last but not least, develop institutional capacities, in particular of urban local authorities involved in the management of plastic waste.

Many of these challenges and solutions are known. Expert committee reports and international experience provide a rich body of knowledge to guide transformation. Funding is available in abundance, as is the best technology. What we need is awareness. An achievement best cited in the words of the Dalai Lama: “We have a responsibility to take care of our planer. It’s our only home.


1. https://dashboards.sdgindex.org/rankings
2. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/30317
3. 7+ Reveal Plastic Waste Stats (2021) | Recycling Coach
4. https://cdn.cseindia.org/docs/aad2019/swati-AAD.pdf

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