When American explorer Victor Vescovo descended almost 35,000 feet to the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the planet’s deepest point — in a private submarine, the last thing he expected to find lying on the ocean bed was plastic waste, which included a plastic bag and wrappers.

The American’s recent descent into the trench in a private submarine caught global headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Mariana Trench is the deepest natural trench in the world. If one were to drop Mount Everest in to the Trench, its peak would still be more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) underwater. The presence of plastic in such a remote location in Earth’s deep biosphere is not good news at all.

While the theme for this year’s World Oceans Day is ‘gender for the ocean’, handling plastic pollution in oceans remains the biggest task in front of everyone. According to the United Nations, 13,000,000 (13 million?) tonnes of plastic leaks into the ocean every year. Our understanding of plastic waste or debris also plays a massive role in this. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Marine Debris Program, the quantity and range of plastic waste found in marine environment has expanded with the increasing use of plastics in our society. Daily items like plastic bags, polystyrene foam glasses and plates, plastic balloons (these fall under domestic plastic), industrial plastic and common items used in fishing (nets, buoys and traps) often enter oceans and other marine environment because of various reasons – be it improper management of waste or illegal dumping into water bodies.

Once it enters the ocean, plastic can take almost 500 years to biodegrade. According to data from the NOAA and the Woods Hole Sea Grant released in October 2018, some select plastic items can take ages to biodegrade in a marine environment. A cigarette butt, for instance, would take almost 10 years to biodegrade. A fishing line would take almost 600 years to go through the biodegrading process. A disposable diaper? 450 years.

The damage does not stop even when the plastic disintegrates. Big pieces of plastic degrade into smaller pieces, known as microplastics. These minute pieces of plastic can be smaller than 5mm in size and include originally manufactured products such as microbeads that are found in cosmetics and personal care products, for instance. Microplastics are often ingested by marine animals – which include fish – thus inadvertently entering the food chain.

In recent months, the devastating effect of plastic waste infiltrating our oceans has been witnessed in multiple whale deaths across the world. Two weeks ago, the carcass of a young sperm whale was found on a beach in Sicily, Italy. Greenpeace activists are said to have found a plastic bag and other plastic objects in its stomach. While this whale was estimated to be around 7 years old, a healthy sperm whale can live up to 60-70 years. According to Our World In Data, the ingestion of plastic has now been documented for at least 233 marine species, including all marine turtle species, more than one-third of seal species, 59% of whale species, and 59% of seabirds. Ingestion by 92 species of fish and 6 species of invertebrates has also been recorded. Our World In Data is a non-profit portal that looks at data and research on powerful, long-term trends affecting the world.

Keeping a check on marine debris and plastic pollution also remains a big task in India. With a vast coastline – more than 7,500 km long—many Indian beaches are culpable of accumulating plastic litter and non-biodegradable marine debris that cause long-term damage to the surrounding ecosystem. A July 2018 Hindustan Times report cited data from the Central Marine Fisheries Institute which concluded that the fishing grounds off Mumbai had the highest average concentration of non-biodegradable marine debris (NBMD) found by trawler nets – around 49.11kg per sq km. This was followed by coasts in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu (37.06 kg/sq km) and Ratnagiri, Maharashtra (2.25 kg/sq km).

There are, however, some signs of encouragement. Malaysia, which is one of the top 10 countries polluting the oceans, has recently decided to send back roughly 3,000 metric tons (3,300 tons) of non-recyclable plastic waste to countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia in a move to avoid becoming a dumping ground for rich nations, according to an AP report. Last year, the Indian government also implemented an action plan to work towards a national marine litter policy. By 2050, world oceans could contain more plastics than fish, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Time is running out.

Water warriors

BEACH PLEASE

A youth initiative by a student, Malhar Kalambe, targets plastic pollution along Mumbai’s coastline, mainly Dadar, Chowpatty and Mithi river (9167660403)

AARNA FOUNDATION

A Thane-based youth initiative focused on MIDC Lake (7678040799)

ENVIRONMENTALIST FOUNDATION OF INDIA

Tries to keep lakes and shores clean across 12 states, including Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (9940203871)

FRIENDS OF MARINE LIFE

This independent organization of marine conservationists has conducted seabed clean-ups across Kerala (9447240402)

REEFWATCH MARINE CONSERVATION

Focused on conserving the coral reefs in the Andaman islands, the NGO has organized beach clean-ups in Chennai’s Besant Nagar and looks for volunteers for marine conservation (9476073291)

—Compiled by Benita Fernando

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