On 16 April last several newspapers in India had carried an ominous news item. Corpse of a Sperm Whale was recently found on the Mursia coast of southern Spain. After autopsy sixty four pounds of plastic materials were found in its gut and small intestines. It was impossible for the whale to digest such huge amounts of foreign materials which caused bacteria and fungus infection inside its body leading to the mammal's untimely death.
This news item is a pointer to the mindless havoc that humanity has been causing to its oceans and marine life. If the process does not stop then a large part of our marine assets will disappear soon and the principal cause behind such a horrific scenario will be rampant use of plastic goods and their ultimate dumping in seas.
Unfortunately there is no sign that we have realized the gravity of the situation. Had we learnt the lesson from an incident in 2008 when two Sperm Whales were found stranded in the California coast of the US with large amounts of fishing net scraps, ropes and other plastic debris in their stomachs, then the recent tragedy could have been avoided.
How serious is the threat from use of plastics? Well, plastic is not bio degradable. The Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) of the US thinks that ' every bit of plastic ever made still exists'. At present sixteen lakh plastic bags are produced and used each second and according to one estimate 275 billion plastic bags were produced worldwide in 2017. So the plastic pollutants are produced on lands and ultimately dumped into the sea. It is estimated that in 2017 alone five million plastic bags have gone into the ocean.
Bags form only a portion of total quantum of plastics produced and so it is a bit difficult to quantify the total amount of plastic materials which are going into the sea each year. It will suffice here to state that in the first decade of the present century the world has produced more plastic items than all the plastics in history upto the year 2000.
The threat is gigantic. How much plastic pieces are really there in our oceans? One estimate counts the figure to be 5.25 trillion pieces while another study puts it to a range of 15-51 trillion plastic trashes. Whatever may be the exact figure all the gyres (system of rotating currents) of the world's five major oceans are filled with plastic goods. The biggest of them is the North Pacific Ocean Gyre which is now called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch due to accumulation of plastic trashes in it. This garbage patch has now become so huge that it is now bigger in size than the American state of Texas.
Great numbers of sea animals, from small sized finches to giant whales and big sharks, are consuming these plastics and are dying as a result. Fishes in the North Pacific eat 12000 to 24000 tons of plastic each year and die in its wake. Fishes at the market of California have been found to be containing plastic microfibers in their guts. Sea turtles and sea birds also ingest plastics mistaking them for food items. Consumption of plastics by newly born Laysan Albatrosses have led to large scale death among them. It is also axiomatic that sea mammals are also eating plastics which are blocking their stomachs, intestines,guts etc. There are umpteen examples of recovery of plastic bags, jerrycans, ropes etc from abdominal organs of various kinds of sea animals. Hawaiian Monk Seals and Steller Sea Lions have now become endangered species due to plastic menace.
The most dangerous part of the story is that through ocean plastics harmful chemicals are entering into human food chains. Plastics in seawater release pollutants like PCB, DDT and PAH and also Bisphenol A. Through fishes these chemicals are entering human bodies.
Strangely 80 percent of the world's wastes are recyclable. But there is a lack of consciousness and willingness among the governments and the common people to take necessary steps in this direction. For example, in Ghana, only 60 percent of wastes are collected for recycling or disposal. The rest 40 percent are left behind to pollute the environment.
Saving our oceans is the urgent need of the time. If we fail to do this, a major catastrophe may occur in the days to come.