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Review: UNEP report highlights the impact of ‘Plastic Pollution’ on migratory species

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Recently, the United Nations Environment Program’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) released a report that talks about the impact of plastic pollution on terrestrial and aquatic animals in the Asia-Pacific region. The report highlighted the severe impact of plastic pollution on various migratory species. 

Recently, the United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) released a report which for the first time focusses on the impact of plastic pollution on terrestrial and aquatic animals in the Asia-Pacific region. According to the report, migratory species are likely to be the most vulnerable to mounting plastic pollution as they have more chances of interacting with plastic during migration. Impact on those animals which are protected under CMS has been emphasized in the report.

Only 9% of the billions of tonnes of plastic waste generated has been recycled

The wide range of applications of plastic, and its usefulness has made plastic inevitable in human lives. It has been estimated that over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics have been produced since the beginning of industrial production, around the 1950s. However, over 79% has ended up in landfills, dumps, or natural environments, and about 12% has been incinerated. Only about 9% of the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Even if humans resort to ambitious plastic waste reduction measures, over 53 million tonnes of plastics will be released to the environment every year, and the figure can go up to 90 million tonnes per year in the absence of such measures. The devastating impact of plastic on human health in not unknown. Likewise, plastic pollution has a significant impact on wildlife as well. Animals may purposefully or unknowingly interact with plastics resulting in entanglement or ingestion. 

Microplastics are more dangerous than macroplastics

In recent years, studies have emphasized on macro and microplastics. Macroplastics are large (> 20 mm) plastic debris such as plastic bottles, and packaging material while microplastics are small plastic fragments typically less than 5 mm derived from the breakdown of microplastics. The problem with microplastics is that they are ubiquitous and small in size. In addition to these, nanoplastics, and microbeads, which are smaller than microplastics and mesoplastics (5 to 20 mm) are also present in the environment. 

Macroplastics such as fishing gear, or ‘ghost nets’ discarded in water bodies lead to fatal injury or drowning of animals. Further, incidents of animals suffering gut blockage upon ingestion of plastic waste, resulting in starvation are also being witnessed. Another problem is that Macroplastics provide a large surface area for the colonization of organisms, leading to the transport of non-native and potentially invasive or pathogenic species to new regions. Meanwhile, microplastics which are now present everywhere including deep-sea and Antarctic freshwaters can be ingested by all organisms. Particle toxicity, abrasion, inflammation, translocation into tissues, are some of the consequences of ingesting microplastics, as per the recent UN report. 

Migratory species are exposed to plastic pollution throughout the migration

Various species migrate owing to reasons such as season, food, and reproductive reasons. This is a natural process. Already, anthropogenic disturbances, habitat loss, and climate change are inducing changes or loss in the migratory behaviour of animals. Unlike non-migratory species which are exposed to only local levels of plastic contamination, migratory species may be exposed to pollutants at any stage throughout their migration. As a result, the concentration of pollutants accumulated in migratory species is much more than in non-migrant species. 

Case studies on Mekong and Ganges Rivers have been included in the report

In the report, two case studies from the Asia Pacific region have been highlighted. One is about the Mekong River flowing through China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar before entering the South China Sea. Second is the Ganges which originates from the Himalayas in India and ends at the Ganges-Brahmaputra Meghna (GBM) delta in Bangladesh and ultimately joins the Bay of Bengal. The two river basins alone contribute about 2 lakh tonnes of plastic to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, every year. 

Mammals are the most vulnerable to plastic pollution in marine and terrestrial life

According to the study, species protected under the CMS are impacted by plastic pollution in river ecosystems and on land. This includes freshwater species, land animals, and birds. 

Among freshwater species, it was observed that air-breathing aquatic mammals are badly affected by entanglement as compared to other aquatic organisms as entanglement in plastic waste would prevent the animals from reaching the surface for air resulting in drowning. The Ganges River Dolphin, classified as endangered in the IUCN red list with only about 3,500 left in the world, was identified to be the second most vulnerable species with respect to risk of entanglement due to the discarded fishing gear in the river. Likewise, the Irrawaddy Dolphins in Mekong with less than 100 left (also classified as endangered in IUCN list), Porpoises and Dugongs are victims of plastic pollution in the region. 

Among terrestrial species as well, mammals are the most vulnerable. Ruminants such as cows, goats, and sheep have been observed to be scavenging in waste sites. The Indian Elephant which is endemic to the region has been observed to be scavenging on rubbish dumps in Sri Lanka and ingesting plastic in Thailand. However, more research is required with respect to terrestrial mammals. Only anecdotal evidence has been presented in the report. 

Birds interact more with plastic waste than other species

Birds constitute over 80% of the species listed by CMS in the Asia-Pacific region. They also account for the most observed plastic interactions. Migratory birds such as the Black-faced Spoonbill, Long-Legged Buzzard, and the Osprey have been observed making nests out of plastics such as ropes, fishing lines and shipping debris which often result in the entanglement of their chicks. Migratory seabirds such as Black-footed Albatrosses and Laysan Albatrosses were more vulnerable to plastic ingestion as they select items from the ocean surface to feed. Plastic from degraded post-consumer products has been observed in the digestive contents of albatross chicks in the North Pacific. 

Need for immediate measures to avert further damage to species

Major challenges in the Asia-Pacific region include the lack of understanding of plastic leakage to land and rivers, building up of unrecyclable waste, and lack of financial support for recycling, among others. Most of the countries in the region are either Least or Lower-Middle Income Countries, according to OECD and thereby face financial constraints.

Discarded fishing gear is dangerous with entanglement which is a widely reported problem. Aquatic, terrestrial, and avian species are all affected by it. Thus, providing greater incentives for retaining and repairing fishing gear while also trying to recover discarded fishing gear from the environment has been recommended in the report. Further, reducing plastic waste, preventing plastic from reaching the environment, education campaigns to spread awareness, and coordinated action between local communities, academics, industry, governments, and NGOs are some of the measures recommended. 

10 states accounted for 81% of plastic waste generated in India in 2018-19

Data as per the MoSPI’s Envistats, which is estimated based on CPCB’s data, indicated that India generated close to 3.14 million tonnes of plastic waste or 31.4 lakh tonnes in 2018-19. Maharashtra was estimated to have generated over 4.10 lakh tonnes of plastic waste in 2018-19, followed by Tamil Nadu with 4.01 lakh tonnes. Gujarat was third in line with over 3.57 lakh tonnes of plastic waste generated followed by West Bengal with 3 lakh tonnes. 10 states were estimated to have generated more than one lakh tonnes each and together generated 25.4 lakh tonnes of plastic waste, accounting for close to 81% of the total plastic waste generation estimated in the country. 

MoEF made amendments to Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016

The Ministry of Environment notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 to deal with the plastic waste menace in the country. The rules mandate the responsibilities of the generator of waste, local bodies, gram panchayats, waste generators, retailers, etc. to manage such waste. On 13 August 2021, the government notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021 which prohibits certain single-use plastic items by 2022, such as plastic earbuds, plastic plates, cutlery, cigarette packets, packing films, ice cream sticks, etc. The thickness of plastic carry bags has been increased from 50 microns to 75 microns and to 120 microns with effect from 31 December 2022. Furthermore, state governments have been requested to develop a comprehensive action plan for the elimination of single-use plastics and effective implementation of Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, and its implementation in a time-bound manner. 

In addition to this, plastic waste has been used in India for laying roads. 703 km length of National Highways have been constructed using plastic waste in wearing a coat of flexible pavement. A demonstration plant of one tonne capacity for the daily processing of plastic waste to produce diesel has been set up at Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR)-Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP). 

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