Just a few kilometres off the shores of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands —located in India’s Bay of Bengal— fishermen sometimes don’t find any fish… just plastic. The same plastic bottles and bags are also littered across the islands’ beaches.
But this plastic garbage is not all from locals: it travels far from countries around the Bengal Bay, such as Myanmar, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
As plastic pollution shifts from different countries, governments in the area are struggling to contain its spread across marine ecosystems. This is putting the unique marine biodiversity of the region at risk, experts say.
Although some efforts towards international cooperation are underway, the measures have not been strong enough to mitigate this problem.
“It can be really difficult for the islands to manage plastic pollution because oftentimes the majority of it is coming from elsewhere, arriving on currents from thousands of miles away,” said John Hocevar, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace.
Physical characteristics of this region might also contribute to the spread of plastics, a 2020 study showed. Monsoons in the Indian Ocean, for example, are moving this pollution across national borders.
To make a real difference, “we will have to go to the source if we hope to make a dent in plastic pollution and turn off the tap,” said Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UN Environment Programme’s regional coordinator for chemicals, waste and air quality in Asia and the Pacific.
Reducing plastic production could also help to slow down global carbon emissions, the expert said. Most emissions from plastics come from its production, through chemicals sourced from fossil fuels.
At a global level, as demand grows every year, the plastics industry is expected to emit some 1.34 billion tons of greenhouse gases each year by 2030.
Plastic pollution is accumulating in the Bay of Bengal, increasingly threatening the region’s marine biodiversity.
A 2019 study of plastic bottles collected from six beaches in East Great Nicobar Islands revealed that 98% was not of Indian origin. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand alone accounted for 80% of the bottles, carried by ocean currents that transport plastic trash via the Malacca Strait, a major shipping route connecting these countries.
Wrappers, footwear and textiles sink into the ocean, but marine life mistakenly consumes plastics floating on the surface.
Adding to this is also the menace of abandoned plastic fishing nets which trap marine fauna in the central Indian Ocean. A 2015 study found that 129 Olive Ridley turtles were caught in lost plastic meshes in the Maldives during the previous 26 years.
In the Andamans, “chipped off plastic material from fishing nets might sometimes dislodge and can turn up on the shore or be later discovered in drains,” said Maheshvar Rao, who operates a fishing business there.
Eventually plastic breaks into tiny pieces called microplastics (less than 5 mm), which may interrupt the food chain in various ways across the archipelago of 572 islands with a coastline of around 1,900 kilometres.
In 2016, a survey of marine debris scattered on beaches of the Nicobar Islands found a substantial amount of microplastic ingestion in pelagic thresher sharks in the region. Here again, marine debris, particularly plastic, was traced back to foreign shores, namely China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, among others.
Much lower on the food web are zooplankton, an essential source of nutrition and energy to all fish.
In Port Blair, the islands’ state capital, last year scientists discovered microplastic fragments predominantly in the zooplankton community, demonstrating that plastics are all-pervasive in the Andamans, a prime biodiversity hotspot in India.
Pollution on the move
As plastic increasingly becomes a harmful pollutant in the Indian Ocean, the beaches of countries surrounding the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are, too, being littered.
According to a 2020 study led by the University of Western Australia (UWA), Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Pakistan and the Maldives are among the countries whose beaches receive plastic from the Bay of Bengal.
“The beaching probability depends on a lot of different factors: the wind and wave conditions at a specific time or place, as well as the type of beach or coastline. For example, plastics are more likely to become stuck and remain on rocky beaches or coastlines with mangroves than they are on sandy beaches,” said lead author Dr Mirjam Van Der Mheen, postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Western Australia Oceans Institute.
According to researchers at the UWA, the monsoon season that affects the climate of the Indian Ocean might influence ‘beaching patterns’ of materials.
Their experiment found an ongoing back and forth of experimental particles between two marginal seas joining the Indian ocean: the Arabian Sea in the northwest and Bay of Bengal in the northeastern Indian Ocean.
During the monsoon season, the Northeast Monsoon Current pushes particles towards the Arabian sea and in turn, the Southwest Monsoon Current transports particles back to the Bay of Bengal. Regardless, particles are present throughout the year in the Bay of Bengal due to large rotating ocean currents, also called gyres, the study said.
Consequently, projections of a 2021 study, also by the UWA, further suggest that garbage is being trapped in the Bay of Bengal. However, more measurements in the area would be needed to confirm this with certainty.
”Floating plastic waste accumulates in the subtropical garbage patch of the Pacific Ocean because of converging and downwelling ocean currents. In the Bay of Bengal, there is no such mechanism that accumulates plastics”, the scientist said.
“Oceanographers would not call this a garbage patch. Instead, the high concentrations of plastics are a result of the large sources of ocean plastic pollution in the region,” she added.
Whose trash is it?
In a single day, 1 to 3 billion microplastic particles entering the Bay of Bengal come from the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin, passing through China, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. However, curbing this discharge of plastic waste in the near future seems far-fetched to scientists.
According to an international study, even if these countries were to take necessary actions such as indefinitely ending open defecation and improving sewage treatment facilities by 80%, huge amounts of microplastic and triclosan will continue to land in the Bay of Bengal in 2050, surpassing 2010 levels.
While river pollutants such as dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) and dissolved inorganic phosphorus (DIP) dropped significantly in the assessment of best case scenarios, this was not possible with plastic.
“Advanced treatment facilities such as ozone water treatment are required to remove microplastic and triclosan with 95% sewage treatment efficiency,” said lead author Masooma Batool, PhD researcher at the UFZ – Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research in Germany.
To Batool, that seems like an unattainable goal for Asia due to the lack of an effective policy framework in the Gangetic Delta region of the Bay of Bengal. “There is no such policy framework dealing collectively in plastic pollution in these transboundary countries at the moment,” Batool added.
Regulations to control plastic pollution are based on international frameworks such as those given by the International Organization for Standardization, but the application of these regulations are abysmal, Batool said.
In June 2019, countries from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) committed to the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris, which aims to prevent and reduce marine debris in the region. But this agreement has its limitations.
“While this document looks at legally binding responsibilities with concrete action plans, its premise on voluntary compliance is grounded in non-interference in the sovereign affairs of ASEAN member countries. This culture of non-interference is a major obstacle to tackling plastic pollution,” said Dr. Danny Marks, assistant professor of environmental politics and policy at Dublin City University.
The ‘ASEAN way’ of doing things is rooted in the principle of non-interference outlined in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation adopted by Southeast Asian countries in 1976. For example, for many decades, this principle has come in the way of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia tackling haze pollution together.
The declaration also falls short in addressing pollution at its root, Greenpeace said in a statement after the adoption of this document. The agreement focuses too much on managing plastic waste, rather than reducing its production, the organization said.
While awareness of plastic pollution has grown in Asia and the world over, what’s stopping countries from cooperating with each other to make a change?
Petch Manopawitr, Marine Programme Manager at Wildlife Conservation Society in Thailand, believes it’s greed that’s preventing two-thirds of the UN member states from negotiating a global treaty.
Manopawitr adds that “big money from fossil fuels and existing legal frameworks allows them to profit at the expense of the environment.”
Hocevar, on his part, says “the biggest obstacles to progress are petrochemical companies like DOW and Exxon who want to be able to continue to sell large amounts of plastic.” These companies fund political campaigns, elect officials and buy influence to lobby for continued production.
A separate legal entity to legally enforce regulations upon all countries with respect to ocean pollution could help, researchers suggest.
Furthermore, constant monitoring with advanced technology placed on international waters is needed to understand and share the impacts of marine plastic debris, as well as identify each type of plastic and how to mitigate it country-wise.
At the industry level, a policy called the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) dictates manufacturers and importers to bear responsibility for products throughout the life cycle.
“For the world to do something effective to address the plastic pollution crisis, we first need to shine a light on the entire supply chain of plastics from source-to-sink, and enable better decision-making,” Minderoo Foundation’s Sea The Future initiative COO, Nakul Saran said in a press release.
Some initiatives in the Bay of Bengal are trying to find solutions and are making efforts to mitigate the impacts of plastics in the area.
A fitting example is of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy venture which has united more than 1.000 businesses, governments and like-minded organisations.
They work towards developing innovative packaging, models for reuse, recycling and composting methods to circulate all plastic items in order to keep them out of the environment.
“It’s an interesting and promising approach with buy-in from lots of big business players with massive footprint”, said Manopawitr. “But real impact is still depending on the in-country legal framework.’’
In 2019, the Andaman and Nicobar islands banned the production, use and import of single use plastic items. Regardless, plastic trash still keeps washing up on its shores—illustrating the transboundary issue is far larger than one island alone can solve.
“People from small islands like this would be a very powerful voice for calling for strong global action because what happens to them is largely beyond their control and it requires a strong response from the international community,” said Hocevar.