A WHALE was found beached at the mouth of the Khlong Nathap Canal in southern Thailand on May 28. It was barely breathing.

Despite veterinarians’ efforts to save its life, the whale died on June 1. A necropsy showed that the whale had 80 plastic bags, weighing about eight kilogrammes, in its stomach. This made it impossible for it to eat any nutritional food.

A few days later, at a marine centre in Chanthaburi province of Thailand, a green turtle died even after attempts at intravenous feeding. Examination revealed plastic, rubber bands, pieces of balloons in the turtle’s intestinal track, rendering the turtle unable to eat.

Ironically, these two incidents occurred while the world was celebrating World Environment Day on June 5, and the World Oceans Day on June 8, both focusing on the theme of eliminating plastic from the world’s oceans.

According to the German-based Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research, 90 per cent of plastic polluting the oceans comes from just 10 rivers. Eight of them are in Asia: the Yangtze, Indus, Yellow, Hai, Ganges, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, and two in Africa — the Nile and the Niger.

The Indus River dumps 164,332 tonnes per year of plastic load into the Arabian Sea, which then persists as microplastics in the marine life later consumed as seafood

The Indus River dumps 164,332 tonnes per year of plastic load into the Arabian Sea, while the Yangtze River in China tops the list with 1,469,481 tonnes of plastic conveyed to the East China Sea annually.

Plastic pollution in rivers is directly linked to the plastics in the catchment areas, with rivers carrying it into the seas. Urban land use and population density have been shown to be positively linked to plastic concentrations.

Since land-based sources are the major contributors of plastic debris, it would mean that in the context of Indus River, the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has to do their job of preventing plastic pollution.

Plastic is something that neither animals nor humans can digest. The citizens of Karachi should be gravely concerned about the amount of plastic debris in the Arabian Sea, as plastic is non-biodegradable and more importantly, it fragments into microplastics, which are ingested by fish, and even by small marine organisms like zooplankton.

Upon ingestion, these microplastics have the potential to release toxic chemical contaminants. Fish is then consumed the residents of Karachi and the microplastics remain in their systems causing a variety of health complications, including cancer.

Some measures can be adopted to help reduce plastic pollution. While shopping, one can carry reusable cotton bags instead of the plastic bags provided by stores. Similarly, plastic straws can be replaced by ones made of bamboo or glass, which are now widely available.

Alternatives to plastic bottles include glass, ceramic, stainless steel, and biodegradable plant-based plastics. A key to reducing waste is to reuse the bottles as much as possible, whatever the material. The Sindh government has imposed a ban on plastic products in the province.

Though encouraging, as more than 60 countries have introduced bans and levies to curb single-use plastic waste, the ban will not be quite effective, as no follow-up guidelines have been issued by the SEPA. Shops have not been notified as yet, and shopkeepers still use plastic bags.

Plastic bag bans, if properly planned and enforced, can effectively minimise the use of plastic. To tackle the crisis, the Sindh government must engage a broad range of stakeholders — retailers, consumers, industry representatives, local government, tour operators, manufacturers, civil society, and environmental groups.

Voluntary agreements can be helpful in enforcing the ban. Citizens need to change their consumption patterns by avoiding plastic items. Public awareness can play a major role, as most citizens are not even aware that plastic poses such a serious problem.

The writer has a Masters of Engineering in Environmental Engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 16th, 2018

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