Enabling oceans to heal themselves

Inaugural of India-EU Water Forum

One of the most formidable threats that the world's ocean face today is marine plastic; 8.8 tonnes of the world's plastic enter the oceans every year. At this current rate, the world's oceans will hold one kilogram of plastic for every three kilograms of fish by 2025. Immediately establishing the urgency of action against marine plastic waste with such statistics, Dr M. Rajeevan, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, India, set the context for the plenary titled 'Moving Towards Cleaner Oceans' at World Sustainable Development Summit 2019.

An integrated land-ocean approach

The oceans, Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway explained, are critical to our survival. Containing 50 percent of the world's oxygen, oceans are responsible for every second breath we take. Climate change, which is altering climate ecosystems, dislocating resources, and creating oceanic unpredictability, is contributing to more plastic discharge from rivers to oceans as a result. His talk also addressed the deep linkages between climate change and marine plastic. When Norway set out to assess the biggest source of micro-plastic, a significant marine polluter, their report identified rubber dust from car tyres and rubber fragments from artificial football grounds. Such a specific understanding of marine plastics can help formulate the right measures and policies. In this context, he also recommended that a sustainability approach should integrate land-based sources, land-coastal system and oceans into one whole when planning and devising policy. Such holistic planning can enable the ocean to tap into its regenerative capabilities, while providing benefits in health, job creation, and the overall economy.

Towards such an integrated solution, even the paradigm of marine 'waste' must be reconsidered, he said. Waste is merely a resource gone astray, and incentivising businesses to use secondary plastic can generate economic value. Similarly, it is possible to decarbonise coastal shipping and transport through electrification and use offshore wind energy, which can enhance air quality while creating new jobs and advanced technologies.

A business case for ocean regeneration

Annie Notthoff, Senior Western Advocacy Director, NRDC - San Francisco & Sacramento, explained how oceanic regeneration offers sound economics. Two decades ago, the ocean-facing state of California established a science-based system encompassing marine-protected areas, fish nurseries, and other facilities to enable its ocean to regenerate. Once considered useless, the initiative has added to the regenerative capability of the ocean as well as the fisheries population. Similarly, she said, beach and water reports influenced the public mindset about ocean health. As a result, California has healthier ocean water, which benefits its US$45 billion coastal tourism economy. Considering the impact of the state's overall economy, Notthoff said it has enabled the introduction of ocean management into the overall climate debate, resulting in activities and policy changes like a ban on single-use plastic bags.

Stopping India’s plastic leak

Giving an India perspective, Dr Suneel Pandey, Director, Environment & Waste Management, TERI, revealed that uncollected plastic waste, as well as a significant component of dumpsite plastic, leak into local waters. Simultaneously, there is airborne transmission of waste into coastal water. This necessitates better waste management, he said. A recent experiment was conducted in Delhi wherein local trash pickers were incentivised to pick up the small sachets and pouches commonly used in the city. This waste is now being co-processed at cement kilns, for producing thermal energy, thereby replacing conventional fuel. A similar approach, he recommended, must be deployed for retrieving oceanic waste, which will be vital to regenerate our oceans.

Read TERI paper on 'Plastic Waste Management in India'.