October 7, 2022

Lukmaan IAS

A Blog for IAS Examination

The Issue of Microplastics Pollution

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THE CONTEXT: Amidst all the claims of making Ganga clean and clean, a Delhi-based NGO Toxics Link has found that the river Ganga has rapidly degraded due to human activities. In the study, the presence of Micro-Plastics has been studied along the banks of river Ganga. This article analyses the issue in detail.

What are Microplastics and Where do they come from?

Micro-plastics are very small (generally less than 5 millimeters in size) plastic particles that can originate from a variety of sources, such as ingredients in cigarette filters, textile fibers and cleaning or personal care products, and dust from car and truck tires, as well as from larger plastic products broken down by the effects of the sun, wind and ocean waves.

There are two types of micro-plastics: “primary” and “secondary” micro-plastics.

  • Primary micro-plastics are manufactured to be tiny in order to serve a specific function for example, as an abrasive in a consumer product.
  • Secondary micro-plastics come from the breakdown of larger plastic items.

Microbeads as a part of microplastice pollution
• Microbeads are a sub-category of microplastics, commonly manufactured for domestic use in cosmetic scrubs, toothpaste, and cleaning products.
• Cosmetics companies added them to their personal care product portfolios, including cosmetics, lotions, face washes, toothpaste, shampoos, sunscreens, shaving creams, and exfoliators.
• These microbeads can get stuck in the eyes and also get lodged in the eyelid, thereby injuring the cornea.
• The abrasive material used in toothpaste can get stuck in the gums and bone holding the teeth, trapping bacteria and leading to gingivitis, bleeding from the gums, and weakening of teeth.

What does the Recent Study about the Levels of Pollution in River Ganga tell us?

  • Samples of Ganga’s water were collected from Haridwar, Kanpur, and Varanasi. Micro-plastics were found in all of them.
  • Five samples of water from the river at Haridwar, Kanpur, and Varanasi were sent to the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa for examination. 40 different types of polymers of microplastics are present in the water of river Ganga.
  • Resins such as EVOH, polyacetylene, PIP, PVC, and PVL were found in abundance at all three sites.
  • Apart from micro-plastics, there were other kinds of plastics as well such as single-use plastic and secondary plastic products.
  • Of the samples, those taken at Varanasi had the highest concentration of plastic pollution.
  • Untreated sewage from densely populated cities across the river’s course, along with industrial waste and religious offerings that are wrapped in non-degradable plastic add a significant amount of pollutants into the river.
  • As the river flows, these waste and plastic materials are carried into the Bay of Bengal and then into the ocean which is the “ultimate sink “of all plastics that are used by humans.

The reasons for Microplastics in Ganga

  • Dumping of plastic items and waste into the river, which over time turns into small pieces and the river eventually takes this waste into the sea in large numbers. This chain is the last stop for the plastic being used by humans.
  • The poor condition of both solid and liquid waste management. It is necessary to take steps to fix it.
  • In comparison to Kanpur and Haridwar, Varanasi has the highest number of microplastics found in the Ganga river.
  • It is clear from the microplastics found in the Ganga river that plastic waste management rules are in force in the country, but they are not being implemented properly. There is a need to ban single-use plastic.

The Impacts of Microplastics Pollution

Among the range of plastic debris that is found in water bodies, micro-plastics are the most notorious because of their small size, on average micro-plastics are less than 5 mm in length or roughly equal to five pinheads.

River and Ecosystem• Micro-plastics have effects on animals living in rivers.
• Most plastic pollution starts on land before traveling, via rivers, to the ocean. During this MPs affect the river ecosystem badly.
• There are higher concentrations of microplastics in rivers than there are in the sea.
• In the UK, a recent sample of the river Mersey near Liverpool found that there was an average of 84,030 particles of microplastics in each square meter of water.
• Microplastics have been found in fish and other animals. There is evidence that they can cause physical harm to small creatures in a variety of ways, such as directly damaging their mouths or by filling their stomachs and impairing their ability to feed.
• Microplastics act as a vehicle for transporting harmful chemicals into humans and other animals.
Impact on Marine Species• Micro-plastics are harmful to marine species.
• More than 663 marine species are affected by marine debris and 11 percent of them are related to micro-plastic ingestion.
• Because micro-plastics are so small, they are ingested by marine habitants including fish, corals, planktons, and sea mammals and are then carried further into the food chain.
Impacts on Human• In the case of humans, most of the micro-plastics can be found in food, water and food containers and their ingestion can cause health problems.
• The results of this study are a matter of grave concern from the public health perspective.
• The Ganga is a source of water for not just drinking and bathing purposes but also for irrigation to a large extent.
• A study conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature last year revealed that an average person consumed 5 grams of plastic, which is equivalent to a credit card.
• Another study published by Environmental Science and Technology revealed that humans might be consuming 39,000 to 52,000 micro-plastic particles a year.
• Micro-plastics might contain toxic chemicals that cause obesity, diabetes, and some types of cancers. As the problem continues to mount and plastic continues to remain an integral part of human life, a solution must be sought at the earliest.
Impact on Environment• Micro-plastics are being impacted the environment from north to south.
• The river is acting as a carrier of plastics and micro-plastics and transporting significantly large quantities into the ocean.
• In 2020, alarm bells went ringing after scientists found micro-plastic pollution in the snow near the peak of Mount Everest. Tiny plastic fibers within a few hundred meters of the world’s highest mountain, at a spot called the balcony, located at 27,500 feet, just a few hours climb from Everest’s summit.
Bioaccumulation Bio and Magnification• Micro-plastics holds the potential for both bioaccumulation and biomagnification.
• Bioaccumulation refers to the entry of a pollutant or toxic substance into the food chain whereas bio-magnification refers to the increase in the concentration of a toxic substance at each successive trophic level after entering into the food chain.
• In bioaccumulation, the concentration of the toxic substance increases in the organism of the same type as the toxic substance is retained in the body of the organism while in biomagnification, the toxic substance gets accumulated in the body of organisms at successive trophic levels at a higher concentration than the previous trophic level.

What are the Solutions?

Recycling• The most natural response to microplastic pollution is recycling.
• While recycling is not a permanent solution that will remove plastic from the face of the earth. It is, however, a smart solution to prevent microplastic pollution.
Reducing Plastic Consumption• It is an important step that can be taken to ensure that the level of microplastic pollution in the country is removed.
• From regulating the use of single-use plastic to ensuring proper waste management, several steps can be taken by the government and local bodies to prevent microplastic pollution.
• The fact that India today produces 20 times more plastic than it did in 1964, is proof of the fact that a change is needed and it is needed immediately.
Public Engagement• Taking personal initiatives such as zero-waste trips, shunning disposal food, using your own utensils, quitting the use of bottled water and giving up plastic packaging, here are some of the steps that every citizen can take to curb microplastic pollution.
Strengthening EPR• The strengthening of the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in Plastic Waste Management Rules since a lot of pollution in the Ganga was due to industrial waste.
• EPR put the onus of plastic waste management on the producers or the company’s manufacturing the products. It also pushes the argument that rivers should be declared as ‘no plastic zones’.
Industrial Engagement• Before a phase-out or ban is announced by the Union government, the industry must voluntarily start putting a label on the personal care and cosmetic products (PCCPs) that mentions that their products contain intentionally added micro-plastics.
• This will enable the consumer to take responsibility for keeping the environment free from the impacts of micro-plastics.
• The Central Drugs and Standards Control Organisation must recognise the products that use intentionally added primary micro-plastics and equip themselves to restrict the use of prohibited raw materials.
International Experience to Reduce the Microbeads • Microbeads are not captured by most wastewater treatment systems. If washed down the drain after use, they can end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
• The best way to reduce the impact of microbeads is to prevent them from entering the environment in the first place.
What is Australia doing about microbeads?
• In 2016, agreed to support a voluntary industry phase-out of plastic microbeads found in rinse-off personal care, cosmetic, and cleaning products.
• Consistent with the intention of protecting the marine environment, the phase-out targets rinse-off products which are reasonably capable of entering the marine environment through normal use.
• The 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan includes a commitment from the business sector and governments to phase out 100 percent of microbeads from the targeted rinse-off products.
• Plastic microbeads in these products can be substituted with natural abrasive ingredients, such as pumice, salt, and crushed seed kernels.

Conclusion: As micro-plastics have become a severe danger for marine life and human health, the government should regulate the micro-plastics contains products and should focus to reduce the use of micro plastics and plastic as well. Apart, from it, a mass movement for the active engagement of all sections of society is vital to get positive results in reducing micro-plastics.

Additional Information

Microplastics and Nanoplastics

  • Plastic particles below 5 mm in length are called micro-plastics. The smaller ones, with a size equal to or less than 100 nm (1/10 000 mm) are called Nano-plastics. They are so tiny that one cannot see them with the naked eye or even with an ordinary optical microscope.
  • Micro-plastic particles are accidentally consumed by marine organisms, which are then consumed by predator fish. Nano-plastic particles are even more toxic to living organisms as they are more likely to be absorbed through the walls of digestive tracts and thereby transported into the tissues and organs. Consequently, such plastic particles can interfere with various physiological processes, from neurotransmission to oxidative stress and immunity levels of freshwater and marine organisms.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): It is initiated by National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency in 2013. It is defined as an environmental protection strategy that makes the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal of the product.

Particle categoryDiameter range
Nano-plastics<0.0001 mm
Small micro-plastics0.0001 mm- 1 mm
Large micro-plastics4.75 mm
Meso-plastics4.76- 200 mm
Macro-plastics>200mm

Questions to Ponder

  1. Discuss the impacts of micro-plastics on human health and marine life.
  2. What are sources of micro-plastics? How they can be contained?
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