Trash talk: Deal­ing with marine plas­tic pol­lu­tion in Sri Lanka’s oceans


If cur­rent marine plas­tic pol­lu­tion trends con­tinue, the ocean will con­tain more plas­tic than fish by 2050, pre­dicts the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum re­port The New Plas­tics Econ­omy. The Ocean Con­ser­vancy es­ti­mates that over 150 mil­lion met­ric tons of plas­tic are cur­rently cir­cu­lat­ing in the ocean,while another eight mil­lion met­ric tons are added an­nu­ally.

The study em­pha­sizes the sever­ity of this is­sue,equat­ing it to dump­ing a truck­load of plas­tic into the ocean ev­ery minute, of ev­ery day, for a year. In 2016, South Asia gen­er­ated

26 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic waste and un­sur­pris­ingly, thishas led to the cre­ation of a“dead zone” – an area where oxy­gen lev­els are too low to sus­tain marine life – in the Bay of Ben­gal.

Marine plas­tic pol­lu­tion orig­i­nates partly from waste dumped by marine ves­sels and off­shore gas/oil rigs, but a vast ma­jor­ity, al­most 80 per­cent is from land-based sources. This blog ar­gues that the so­lu­tion to the ris­ing prob­lem ofland-based marine plas­tic pol­lu­tion in Sri Lanka is a com­bined force of ban­ning sin­gle-use plas­tics, proper waste man­age­ment, and the use of sus­tain­able ecofriendl­y al­ter­na­tives.

Health risks of plas­tic pol­lu­tion

A grave con­se­quence of marine plas­tic pol­lu­tion is that many marine species be­come vic­tims, of­ten in­gest­ing plas­tic de­bris that harm or kill them. This al­so­trans­fers harm­ful chem­i­cals and mi­croplas­tics to hu­mans, as ap­prox­i­mately around 3 bil­lion peo­ple rely on seafood as their pri­mary source of pro­tein.

A Bel­gian study cal­cu­lated that con­sumers of shell­fish could be eat­ing al­most 11,000 plas­tic frag­ments an­nu­ally, while another

study iden­ti­fied that one third of UK’S fish con­tain some form of plas­tic. This threat is not lim­ited to Europe; con­tam­i­nated fish have been found across the globe from the Amer­i­cas to

Asia, in­di­cat­ing that this is a per­ti­nent global is­sue.stud­ies have also shown the pres­ence of mi­croplas­tics in Sri Lankan oceans.

More­over, hu­mans are also ab­sorb­ing other toxic sub­stances, such as met­als and pes­ti­cides, that eas­ily latch on to the sur­face of plas­tics. Of­ten, marine crea­tures are un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween plas­tic and food, while

new re­search shows that plas­tics at­tract a form of al­gae growth that is an al­lur­ing meal for sea crea­tures. Many of the chem­i­cals iden­ti­fied, ac­cu­mu­lated on mi­croplas­tics, pose a sig­nif­i­cant threat to hu­man health, af­fect­ing the func­tions of the liver, kid­neys, and en­docrine glands,in ad­di­tion to be­ing car­cino­gens.

Im­pact on Sri Lanka

This is­sue is a cause for con­cern for the island na­tion, as a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion is de­pen­dent on the fish­eries in­dus­try for their liveli­hoods. Ap­prox­i­mately221,000

fish­er­men­con­tribute to around US$130 mil­lion worth of fish ex­ports, mak­ing up 1.3 per­cent

of the coun­try’s GDP. The Min­istry of Fish­eries re­ports that there has been a rise in the per capita con­sump­tion of fish by lo­cal con­sumers and that fish con­trib­utes to around 55 per­cent of to­tal pro­tein con­sumed in the coun­try. The re­port pre­dicts a 2.4 per­cent growth in the con­sump­tion of fish among lo­cals cit­ing the nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits of fish con­sump­tion with Omega-3 fatty acids, Vi­ta­mins D and B2, and Cal­cium.

Sri Lanka’s ef­forts to com­bat plas­tic pol­lu­tion

Sri Lanka’s first at­tempt to con­trol plas­tic us­age be­gan as early as 1994, when agazette was is­suedby the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment, ban­ning poly­thene, which failed to be im­ple­mented. A sec­ond at­tempt in 2006 and a third at­tempt in 2017 sought to ban the pro­duc­tio­nand the use of polyethene sheets, poly­styrene based pack­ag­ing and cut­lery, and the burn­ing of plas­tic and other sim­i­lar com­bustible ma­te­­ever, the Sri Lankan govern­ment strug­gled to im­ple­ment poli­cies re­strict­ing the use of plas­tic, suc­cumb­ing to pres­sure from plas­tic man­u­fac­tur­ers and re­tail­ers. The Cen­tre

for En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice at­tributes the fail­ure to the lack of strin­gent en­force­ment mech­a­nisms by the govern­ment and the Cen­tral En­vi­ron­men­tal Au­thor­ity (CEA).

On a pos­i­tive note, the Sri Lankan govern­ment has suc­cess­fully in­tro­duced the con­cept of garbage seg­re­ga­tion, sep­a­rat­ing plas­tic and poly­thene for re­cy­cling; a small step to­wards ef­fec­tively com­bat­ting marine plas­tic pol­lu­tion. The 2019 Bud­get of­fers hope, as a pro­posal was made to sub­sti­tute sin­gle-use plas­tics with al­ter­na­tives by 01 Septem­ber 2019. Sri Lanka has also joined Bri­tain, New Zealand, and Ghana to form the Com­mon­wealth Clean Oceans

Al­liance (CCOA), in an ef­fort to fight plas­tic pol­lu­tion. The CCOA pledged €61.4 mil­lion in fund­ing to boost re­search across Com­mon­wealth coun­tries in com­bat­ing plas­tic pol­lu­tion and con­serv­ing the marine en­vi­ron­ment.

Rea­sons for fail­ure

Ban­ning plas­tic in Sri Lanka is a con­tentious is­sue met with strong re­sis­tance from the gen­eral pub­lic. The re­sis­tance is twofold; first, from con­sumers who are re­luc­tant to change, as plas­tic has be­come an in­te­gral part of their daily lives and sec­ond, from plas­tic man­u­fac­tur­ers who pro­ducearound 120,000MT of plas­tic, equiv­a­lent to US$55 mil­lio­nan­nu­ally.

From his­tory, it is ap­par­ent that the govern­ment did not put ad­e­quate ef­forts to pro­vid­ing the pub­lic with suit­able al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic. Sim­ply im­pos­ing reg­u­la­tions and bans have no ef­fect in solv­ing the is­sue. Leg­is­la­tion should be present to push or­gan­i­sa­tions and cit­i­zens to­wards re­spon­si­ble pro­duc­tion and con­scious con­sump­tion.

One of the ma­jor con­cerns of the consumer is that plas­tic sub­sti­tutes do not of­fer the same af­ford­abil­ity and con­ve­nience as us­ing plas­­ever, with new tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances and de­vel­op­ments biodegrad­able sub­sti­tutes are now able to match the func­tion­al­ity of plas­tic.

So­lu­tions to the plas­tic prob­lem

Sri Lanka’s South Asian neigh­bor, Bangladesh is de­vel­op­ing the ‘Son­ali bag’; a biodegrad­able al­ter­na­tive to poly­thene bags made of jute cel­lu­lose. How­ever, a lack of fund­ing has pre­vented mass pro­duc­tion. Sim­i­larly, or­gan­i­sa­tions have in­vested in de­vel­op­ing biodegrad­able prod­uct­saround

the world; from con­tain­ers that are 100 per­cent ed­i­ble to pack­ag­ing made of mush­room roots that have the same qual­ity and func­tion­al­ity as foam/plas­tic­pack­ag­ing.

To com­bat the prob­lem of plas­tic in Sri Lanka, the govern­ment should work col­lab­o­ra­tively with the pri­vate sec­tor and the pub­lic in de­vel­op­ing strong poli­cies, which cover leg­is­la­tion ban­ning the use and pro­duc­tion of plas­tic, ed­u­ca­tion that en­cour­ages the pub­lic to re­cy­cle and man­age waste ap­pro­pri­ately, fund­ing and sup­port­ing re­search and de­vel­op­ment to­wards de­sign­ing bio degrad­able al­ter­na­tives. (Dinushka Paranavita­na is a Project Of­fi­cer at the In­sti­tute of Pol­icy Stud­ies of Sri Lanka (IPS). To talk to the author, email [email protected] view this ar­ti­cle on­line and to share your com­ments, visit the IPS Blog ‘Talk­ing Eco­nomics’ - http://­co­nomics/)

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