Plastic pollution: A crisis in Mumbai’s beaches and the Arabian Sea

The fisher communities living along the Mumbai’s beaches and Arabian Sea are losing access to fishing commons and livelihoods due to plastic pollution. Private vehicles and mass transit systems like buses jostle for space on narrow roads, ensuring longer hours for commuters travelling the length of the city. Urban flooding, related as much to the monsoon as to the tide, is a leading cause of a host of health conditions. In a multi-part series, Hindustan Times asks you to take a clear, hard look at the unfolding crisis and our role in it
The fisher communities living along its coastline are losing access to fishing commons and livelihoods due to plastic pollution along the Mumbai beaches and Arabian Sea. (HT PHOTO)
The fisher communities living along its coastline are losing access to fishing commons and livelihoods due to plastic pollution along the Mumbai beaches and Arabian Sea. (HT PHOTO)
Updated on Nov 13, 2021 12:39 PM IST
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ByPrayag Arora-Desai, Mumbai

Between his work as a fisher hauling catch in the early hours of the day from August to October and a gig as a lifeguard with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), 26-year-old Sanjay Bamaniya, a resident of Sagar Kutir, Versova, has little time for fun.

But, whenever he can, he surfs. Well-built and athletic, Bamaniya is a keen swimmer — he was part of a civic body operation that saved the lives of two boys who almost drowned during the recent Ganesh Chaturthi visarjan near Versova koliwada — and he has grown up with the ocean a walking distance from his front door. When he hits the waves at Juhu and Versova beaches he is undeterred by the pollution and debris that Mumbai pours into the sea every day, he said.

“Surfing is incredible. Early on, I taught myself to float on my stomach using large sheets of thermocol and travel with the waves. About three or four years ago I finally acquired a surfboard and now I do it quite regularly with a friend,” he said.

Had it not been for the large thermocol sheets floating around Versova beach, Bamaniya would have never learnt to surf. But the irony is not lost on him – Thermocol is one of the most common plastic pollutants in Mumbai’s coastline and it poses a larger threat to Bamaniya’s livelihood.

“Sometimes, at high tide during monsoon months, there’s so much plastic floating on the water you can’t possibly go swimming or surfing,” Bamaniya said.

“When hauling fish, we end up with several kilos of plastic waste in the nets. It can take hours to segregate the waste from the catch before going to market. We end up spending a lot of money and time fixing our nets; sharp bits of plastic can get tangled in them or even cut them open,” he said.


A sea of plastic

Thermocol, or expanded polystyrene (EPS), is one of several varieties of plastic that can be found along Mumbai’s shoreline. A recent research conducted by Helen White, an oceanographer at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, United States of America, found that polystyrene comprised about 16% of plastic debris collected from three beaches of Mumbai: Juhu, Mahim, Ambojwadi in Malad.

Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC — typically used to make drainage pipes, medical devices and insulation for power cables among others — made up 40% of the debris. Polyethylene Terephthalate or PET — usually found in food and beverage packaging — made up 17%. Trace amounts of Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA; 1%), acetal (1%) and silicon (1%) — components which have a wide range of application as industrial adhesives and in the manufacture of consumer electronics — were also found.

These results are based on analysis of nearly 1,200 plastic samples that were collected at random from the above three locations in Mumbai between 2018 and 2020. White presented these findings as part of a trans-disciplinary collaboration entitled Inhabited Seas, where natural and social science researchers, architects and designers across the US and India studied various aspects of Mumbai’s urban design in the context of its geographical location, as a coastal city, and its rains.

That there is a crisis isn’t new information. But it took another catastrophic event to push this crisis into the limelight.

On May 17, an Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm with windspeeds between 150kmph and 160kmph made a landfall on the Gujarat coast leaving a trail of destruction behind. Lakhs of people were evacuated along the Konkan coast, and property worth several lakhs was damaged. As the storm intensified over the days before it made landfall, an accommodation barge off the coast of Mumbai broke free and sank. Another tugboat got caught in the swirling waters and went under. The Indian Navy launched a search and rescue operation almost immediately but at least 88 of the 274 people couldn’t be rescued.

On June 30, the Bombay high court expressed grave concern over another aftermath of the cyclone. A bench comprising the Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni said that several newspaper reports had pointed to the amount of trash that the sea had regurgitated on Mumbai’s beaches and promenades. These reports painted a “very sorry picture with regard to the cleaning of the coast,” the bench observed.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) told the court that it had collected 153 metric tonnes (MT) of waste, mostly plastic, from the city’s seven beaches the day after Tauktae passed Mumbai. That’s how much 51 elephants put together on a scale would weigh.

The exact quantum of the plastic polluting Mumbai’s shoreline, however, is hard to know.

In a paper published by the Elsevier Journal Science of the Total Environment in August last year, a group of researchers from ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Education (CIFE) found that north-east Arabian Sea, just off Mumbai, contained an estimated 379 MT of marine debris of which plastics contributed to 40.6% of the total by weight. The rest consisted of varying proportions of “metal, glass, rubber, wood/paper, cloth/fibre and others (small degraded particles and natural debris like branches of a tree, coconut, etc),” the paper stated.

The researchers used a technique called swept area method, where the ocean is trawled at selected sampling locations to collect data, which is then used to arrive at a metric called the mean catch per unit area or CPUA. The group conducted 25 trawls between September 2017 and May 2018, collecting 1,107 items of marine debris. Plastics items comprised 87% of it. “Among this, plastic bags and food wrappers were dominant,” the study noted.

The mean CPUA of marine debris in Mumbai’s water was estimated at 22.4 kg per square kilometre of the ocean, though this method has its limitations as small objects like bottle caps, loose fibers and cigarette butts are not always caught in trawl nets. The researchers used this number to calculate the quantum of marine debris in the study area — 379MT.


So what does this mean?

Martin Xavier, who works at the Fisheries Resource Harvest and Post-harvest Management Division at CIFE, and was one of the scientists involved in the 25 trawls said that the plastic to fish ratio is an estimated 1:17. “For 17kg of fish caught by a trawler off the Mumbai coast, a corresponding 1kg of plastic is also inadvertently caught,” he said.

“The presence of plastics is not just an environmental hazard, but also a health hazard. As the plastics remain in the environment, they become a source for microplastics which then find their way into the food chain and can bio-accumulate in humans,” added Xavier.

In 2019, he led a study that estimated that there were 80 microplastic particles per 100 grams of fish, bivalves (clams, oysters) and shrimp, caught in Mumbai. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5mm in length, which enter the environment from disposal and degradation of various consumer and industrial products. Over time, large pieces of plastic break off into tinier fragments under influence of wind, abrasion and exposure to UV light. These may be ingested by marine life, and move up the food chain when humans consume fish, for example.

Studies show their potential to disrupt the body’s endocrine, reproductive and cardiovascular systems, in addition to potentially carcinogenic impact. “It is a serious concern as we found microplastic in the tissue, which is the edible part,” Xavier added.

It’s not just the deep ocean that’s polluted. A 2013 study led by researchers at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, Sri Lanka, found a mean abundance of 68.83 items of plastic per square metre of land on four beaches in Mumbai: Dadar, Mahim, Juhu and Aksa.

A more recent study, published in July this year by researchers at CIFE found that plastics dominate the composition of marine debris in Mumbai’s mangrove forests, comprising 62% of all surface debris items (by number) and 43 percent (by weight) collected from Versova, Gorai, Bandra Bandstand, Sewri, Vikhroli and Elephanta Island.

Such empirical findings come as no surprise to environmentalists and citizens, some of whom have stepped in to clean up. One of them is Afroz Shah, a lawyer and environmentalist who was credited with organising the world’s largest beach up in Versova, in 2015, and has since kept up efforts at keeping the beach clean.

“In seven years of organising beach clean ups, we’ve collected a total of 85,000 tonnes of plastic from just two beaches, Versova and Danapani. Most of it is plastic, and most of the plastic is food wrappers and multi-layered packaging, or MLP. MLP is so conspicuous precisely because it is essentially impossible to recycle, and the informal system of rag-pickers has no use for it,” Shah said.

His team of volunteers now regularly segregates MLPs and sends them to a pyrolysis plant where they are turned into oil.

In the past year, in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe like the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve also added more plastic to our daily use: PPE kits, gloves, face shields, N95 masks.

(Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)
(Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)

Plastic, plastic everywhere

Plastic typically enters the ocean through the city’s drainage channels and rivers, along with other pollutants like sewage and industrial waste. One way to reduce its ingress into the sea would then be to clean these channels.

Under the Mithi River Rejuvenation pilot, the city purchased a specialised machine for mechanical removal of plastic waste (developed by Finland’s RiverRecycle project; the MMRDA is overseeing the project in association with the global Marine Debris Partnership). The machine is essentially a floating barge with a mechanical barrier that segregates and extracts plastic waste and other debris from the water. It is capable of cleaning up about 50 tonnes of waste a day.

But experts argue that this is hardly enough. An assessment by the state mangrove cell across 14 locations in 2019 found that more than 50,000 tonnes of plastic was strewn in mangrove forests alone. Plastic garbage and sewage is found in the other city’s rivers too. According to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, the state itself produced over 300,000 tonnes of plastic waste in the year 20-21 alone.

“A better option would be to install grates at the sea end of various outflows and have them cleaned regularly. This has been a demand of environmentalists in the past that we have also suggested in the High Court, but the municipality has not shown any inclination toward considering it,” said Stalin D, director of city-based NGO Vanashakti, which is currently pursuing litigation in the Supreme Court to curtail pollution of city drains.

For those living in closest proximity to this waste, like Bamaniya, the conspicuousness of plastics has become easy to overlook. “I know it is bad for the environment, and that the fish eat it, but I really don’t know what else to tell you,” he said.

What’s fuelling the crisis?

On paper, Shah explained, India has a robust set of laws to deal with plastic waste, including the Centre’s Solid Waste Management Rules and Plastic Waste Management Rules. In 2020, the Centre also came up with a draft policy called the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which makes manufacturers responsible for recycling an amount of plastic equivalent to what they generate.

And while these rules clearly outline pathways for collection, segregation and recycling of plastic, they only address the problem of plastic once it has turned into waste.

“In the journey of plastic, it doesn’t start out as waste. There is what I call the pre-litter stage, when plastics exist on shelves of stores and in our homes as items of use. It’s only when they fall out of use that they become waste, and that transition is something that the law has not even begun to address,” Shah said.

What is required instead is what experts call a circular economy of plastic, in which these materials aren’t allowed to turn into environmental contaminants.

“The EPR rules are meant to address this, but there are problems with it. For example, a manufacturer who produces 10kg of MLPs in a day is not actually required to recycle the same kind of plastic. He can just as easily recycle 10kg of PET bottles, which have more resale value, and fulfill his responsibility. The law generalises the types of plastic, and leaves room for the worst kind to become pollutants. This is why we are stuck in a post-litter narrative, and why beaches need to be constantly cleaned,” Shah said.

What’s more, there is no legal mandate for the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board to act on plastic pollution in the ocean. “The mandate of the MPCB is to regulate industries. In the event that an industrial unit is found to be violating the Water Act, we revoke our clearances. But as far as the specific issue of plastic pollution in the ocean is concerned, there is no legal mandate for us to act. Our job is to make sure industries don’t pollute, and the BMC’s job is to keep the beach clean. Where the sand ends and water begins, there is a lack of clarity as to who is accountable for the problem.”


Limit thickness of plastic carry bags, ban manufacture of plastic lesser than 5 microns thick, phase out single use plastic

Sanction the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) guidelines which places onus of recycling on the manufacturers

Recycle more. The state has the capacity to recycle 365,236 tonnes per annum in its 111 recycling units. In 2020-21, Maharashtra generated 311,254 tonnes of plastic; collected 251,556 tonnes of plastic waste; of that, sent 23,237 tonnes to landfills and recycled 221,278 tonnes.

Give plastic a longer social life; create a circular economy

Sources: Plastic Waste Management Rules and Solid Waste Management Rules: Central Pollution Control Board)

Quote 1: “Whenever we receive segregated waste from generators, all the components including plastic are properly recycled. Pollution happens because of littering and lack of segregation at source, which is as much a responsibility of citizens as that of authorities. The Extended Producer Responsibility guidelines, once implemented, should be able to address the current situation. We have been working closely with the pollution control board for sustainable waste management and will continue to do so.”

Minesh Damodar Pimple, deputy chief engineer in the BMC’s solid waste management division

Quote 2: “A manufacturer is not required to recycle the same kind of plastic he produces. He can just as easily recycle 10kg of PET bottles that have more resale value. The law generalises the types of plastic, and leaves room for the worst kind to become pollutants”

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Thursday, December 02, 2021