If there is one type of municipal solid waste that has become ubiquitous in India and most developing countries, and largely seen along the shores and waterways of many developed countries, it is plastic waste. Much of it is not recycled, and ends up in landfills or as litter on land, in waterways and the ocean. For the first time, researchers have estimated the amount of plastic that makes its way into the oceans. While the estimate of eight million tonnes of plastic being dumped into the oceans by 192 coastal countries in 2010 may appear staggeringly high, in reality the quantity would be many times more. Besides estimating the total quantity, a paper published recently in the journal Science has identified the top 20 countries that have dumped the most plastic waste into the oceans. At twelfth position, India is one of the worst performers. It has dumped up to 0.24 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year; the amount of mismanaged plastic waste per year is 0.6 million tonnes. In the case of China, the No. 1 polluter, the coastal population sends up to 3.53 million tonnes of plastic waste into the oceans each year. Besides the 11 Asian and South East Asian countries, the U.S. figures in the list.
A study published in December 2014 estimated the quantity of plastic floating in the ocean at nearly 270,000 tonnes. This is but a fraction of the total that finds its way into the oceans. Other studies suggest that the surface of the water is not its final resting place. Alarmingly, an unknown quantity of degraded plastic in the form of particles enters the food chain. Besides affecting marine life, plastic that gets into the food chain has serious health implications for humans. With the latest study estimating that the annual input into the oceans is set to double by 2025, there is an urgent need to tackle the problem. A two-pronged approach has to be adopted by the worst polluters to reduce per capita plastic waste generation and cut the amount of mismanaged waste by employing better waste management practices. Recycling is the best available way to tackle the waste, though it is not the ideal solution. India, which hardly recycles plastic waste, has its task cut out. It dumps a huge quantity into the ocean although it generates a relatively small amount of this waste per person — 3 per cent of 0.34 kg per person a day of all solid waste generated. The huge population offsets the advantage of low plastic consumption in the country. Cutting down on the use of plastic should also begin in earnest, and the first item that has to be targeted is the single-use plastic bag. The Union government recently refused to ban the manufacture of single-use plastic bags; the least it could do to reduce consumption is to make such bags expensive, employing the same rationale that has been applied for tobacco products that are taxed heavily to reduce consumption.