Poor waste management and littering are a rampant problem in India, contributing to the issue of microplastics. Photo: Oregon State University/Flicker

Handle with care, microplastics are everywhere

With a huge population, widespread use of plastic and no policy on microplastics, India is highly vulnerable to microplastic pollution

When we talk about pollution, we think about all things that we can see. The thick blur of Delhi smog, the frothing and foaming Yamuna, black clouds of carbon oozing out of industrial chimneys, beaches laden with plastic, and so on. 

What about the pollutants that we cannot see, such as microplastics? 

Microplastics refer to pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm in size along its longest dimension and are not always visible to the naked eye. Such a small size makes infiltration easy and has consequently led to a worldwide issue of microplastic pollution. 

To begin with, there are two sources for microplastic pollution. The first is the primary source, where microplastics are intentionally produced, for example, by industrialists and other chemical agencies for use in cosmetics, personal care products, dermal exfoliators, industrial abrasives for sandblasting, plastic powders used in moulding, microbeads used in the formulation of cosmetics, etc. The other source is secondary, where microplastics are a result of eventual breakdown of plastic materials, polybags, clothes, food packaging, plastic bottles, synthetic textiles, car tyres, paints etc. They eventually break down to minuscule sizes and go unchecked and unfiltered through and through.

Microplastics: A macro problem

Studies have found microplastics in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Alarmingly, they have also been found in human blood, in human body organs, in human placenta, and it has even rained microplastics

So, is there any place where MPs are not found? “Possibly not. They may not have been measured in certain places yet, but they are probably everywhere,” says Priti Mahesh, chief programme coordinator, Toxics Link, a Delhi-based environmental NGO, that brings toxics-related information into the public domain.

Microplastics in India

The annual consumption of plastics in India in 2019 stood at approximately 11 kg per capita, which is comparatively low than other countries, especially the developed ones such as USA, where per capita consumption in 2016 stood at 105.5 kg per capita.  

While 63% of microplastic research in India has focused on marine ecosystems, India overall is also vulnerable to MP pollution, especially considering the large population and widespread use of plastic, littering, unchecked breakdown of plastic waste, etc. 

A study conducted in Mumbai found microplastics in human consumables—food, water and air and concluded that per day ingestion of microplastics may be ranging between 1,414 to 2,610 particles, with cooked food being the major mode. Traces of plastics, which are used in food packaging, used in the rubber industry and those from textiles, among others, were found in the research.

In Varanasi, plastic particles less than 1mm in size were found in the air, which makes them easy to inhale. MPs of different colours and in the shape of fragments, films, spherules, and fibres were recorded in the study, where fragments (42%) were found in street dust and fibres (44%) dominated in aerosols. 

Representative images of different types of microplastics particles: (a) fiber; (b) fragment; and (c) bead. Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013935122010623 

Another study assessed microplastics in tap water at multiple sites in Goa to reveal that the drinking water supplied to Goan homes is contaminated with plastics. Not only were all tap water samples contaminated, samples from treatment plants also contained microplastics. 

A recent study conducted in the fields of Karnataka and Maharashtra found tiny plastic particles at varied depths, pointing at soil contamination because of mulching—a technique to cover soil with plastic sheets to maintain soil temperature and moisture to facilitate higher crop yields. Apart from mulching, sewage sludge fertilisers, irrigation using wastewater, municipal waste and atmospheric deposition were found to contribute to microplastic deposit in agricultural fields. 

Due to this, crop uptake of microplastics is also becoming a challenge. A study found microplastics in lettuce, as MPs can then be transferred from the roots up to the edible parts of the crop.  It was previously known that particles as tiny as 50 nanometers in size could penetrate plant roots. But this study showed how particles about 40 times that size can get into plants as well.

Not just crops, underlying aquifers and drinking water supplies that rely on groundwater resources below farmlands can also be contaminated by plastic and pesticides due to the deposited plastic in agricultural soils.

Rivers in India have been found to be highly contaminated with microplastics. Rivers from India and Bangladesh collectively discharge huge amounts of plastic wastes annually to the Bay of Bengal. Meghna, Brahmaputra, and Ganges are the major transboundary rivers for transporting plastic waste to the Bay of Bengal and Sundarbans. 

Ingestion of microplastic threatens marine life and plastic stored in animals eventually enters the food chain and human diets. “Microplastics can act as vectors. Depending on their size and surface area, they can absorb harmful substances and can carry them to other places, say from water to food chain,” says Dr Amit, programme coordinator, Toxics Link.

When it comes to human health, studies suggest that ingestion of microplastics can lead to oxidative stress (imbalance between production and accumulation of oxygen reactive species in cells and tissues and the ability of a biological system to detoxify these reactive products), neurotoxicity (exposure to natural or manmade toxic substances alters the normal activity of the nervous system), immune system disruption,  increased cancer risk, and transfer of MPs to other tissues after being exposed to them. However, data on MPs impacts on human health is still limited so the long-term effects remain unknown.

The climate connection

Research has shown that airborne microplastics may have a direct impact on climate change, as they play a role in both cooling and warming Earth’s atmosphere. Microplastics in the air are efficient at scattering sunlight, leading to a cooling effect. At the same time, they can also absorb radiation emitted by earth, making a small contribution to the greenhouse effect.  

In water, too, presence of microplastics can affect the dynamics of the marine ecosystem. Planktons capture carbon through photosynthesis and contribute significantly in making oceans the carbon sinks that they are. Studies suggest that microplastics can affect the way planktons grow, reproduce and capture carbon. Not just that, planktons also graze on microplastics, which can accelerate a global loss of ocean oxygen. 

Where does the law stand?  

Poor waste management and littering are a rampant problem in India. We are still at a stage where we are discussing overall plastic waste management and there’s no official acknowledgement of ‘microplastic’ in any policy. But cosmetics can be a good place to start because they are a primary source and can be easier to target. 

A study found a large number of particles in cosmetic brands sold in India in the ‘rinse-off’ or ‘leave-on’ products, that are disposed into municipal sewer systems, ending up eventually in marine ecosystems or somewhere else, without being recovered or recycled.

A law proposal for banning the use of microplastics in care products in Italy has been approved unanimously in the Italian Parliament. When similar concerns were raised in India, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) in India classified microbeads  as ‘not recognised as safe’ for use in cosmetic products and nothing beyond that materialised. 

However, India recently banned 19 single-use plastic items. Is that going to help? “Banning is just one aspect, a lot more thinking needs to go into this. Do we have that kind of processing capacity at our treatment plants? What about recycling in informal sectors where environmental standards are not met?  How do we discourage overall plastic use? How much and how do we monitor? How much data do we have? Microplastic is a larger issue that has gone unrecognised for many years. So banning 19 plastic items is just a drop in the ocean, but every drop counts,” explains Mahesh.

Earlier this year, at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, all 175 nations unanimously agreed to end plastic pollution, and forge an international, legally binding agreement, by the end of 2024. This World Plastic Treaty is expected to reflect diverse alternatives to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials, and the need for enhanced international collaboration to facilitate access to technology. Environmentalists are hopeful that this will address the issue of microplastics and will present a legally binding instrument for the same to trigger changes around the world.

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