On September 16, when Subhash Chandran, a scuba diver, along with four others, went for their first underwater clean-up post the lockdown at Rushikonda beach in Visakhapatnam, they found floating in the seabed N-95, surgical and cloth masks and other biomedical waste. The divers removed over 1,500 kg of waste over three rounds till September 27.

The Rushikonda beach was recommended by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for the coveted “Blue Flag” certification on September 19, the International Coastal Cleanup day. The eco-label is given to the cleanest beaches in the world meeting stringent environmental and safety criteria.

Over the years, there has been a 70% decline in marine species with many figuring as endangered species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The single-use plastic protective gears are a new threat to aquatic lives.

Chandran, the founder of the scuba diving centre Platypus Escapes, had removed 17,000 kg of wet plastic over 57 days in November, last year. “It is an ocean of plastic and biomedical waste, flowing through open drainage systems from hospitals and litter on the beach,” he said.

According to the World Health Organization, every month the world needs 89 million plastic medical masks and 1.6 million protective goggles, which are made of polypropylene and may take even 500 years to degrade in the ocean.

Around 10, 000 discarded masks, 1050 gloves and PPE kits were found on Mumbai’s Juhu beach in a cleanup drive during May-August. Photo credit: Prasant Barik, Aahwahan Foundation

While flamingos flocked to a locked-down Mumbai and a nilgai was reported to have walked on an empty road in Uttar Pradesh, the jubilation over nature having an edge over mankind stops short right there. “In our Mumbai’s Juhu beach clean-up drives during May-August, we found 10,000 masks, 1,050 gloves and PPE kits discarded along the coastline,” claimed Braja Kishore Pradhan, founder, Aahwahan Foundation.

Chennai’s polluted lakes

The National Green Tribunal had taken suo moto cognizance of indiscriminate dumping of biomedical waste in water bodies in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, earlier this year.

“On July 6, panic-stricken fishermen from the Thiruchinakuppam road in Tiruvottiyur, Chennai found masks, syringes, blood bags and testing equipment dumped along the seacoast. Biomedical waste has also been traced in the Anakaputhur and Manivakkam lakes (in Chennai),” said Prabhakaran, an environmental engineer at Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental group. “The water bodies in Vandalur, Otteri Nalla, Porur, Maduravoyal, Muttukadu and Puzhal had always been dumping grounds for medical supplies.”

“Before Covid-19, a government hospital bed would generate around half-a-kg of biomedical waste per day which has now gone up to 3 kg to 5 kg (per day),” said Prabhakaran. “Though the city leads the biomedical waste generation in the state, the handling capacity is only 25%.”

Ezhilan Nanganathan, a consultant physician said that while medicos take appropriate precautions in managing waste from Covid-19 wards, it is the biomedical waste generated from infected persons under home care that needs utmost focus.

A senior official from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board stated that reckless dumping along water bodies by clinics, smaller hospitals and pharmacies has escalated in the last seven months.

“We have identified two pharmaceutical companies among the violators,” said the official. “We cannot operate CCTVs everywhere as illegal dumping happens at odd hours in isolated, open spaces and water bodies. TNPCB [state Pollution Control Board] officials are working round-the-clock with manpower crunch as most districts have a single officer with just two engineer subordinates to assist.”

“Monitoring and penalising offenders can only help to a degree. Inculcating responsibility and accountability among the public and stakeholders is more important,” the official said.

Poovulagin Nanbargal had sent its recommendations to the Tamil Nadu government demanding that at least one Common Bio-Medical Waste Treatment and Disposal Facility be set up per district. They stated that nearly 47 tonnes of medical waste is produced every day in the state but there were only 11 facilities that could handle a maximum of 34 tonnes of waste as per pre-pandemic figures.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, Tamil Nadu had generated 401.29 tons of biomedical waste in August and engaged only eight Common Bio-Medical Waste Treatment and Disposal Facilities. N Mahesan, chief engineer, solid waste management, Chennai Corporation was unavailable for comment.

Medical waste was found dumped in Pettaikulam near Thisayanvilai town, Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu on August 14, this year. Photo credit: Poovulagin Nanbargal

Waste segregation and management

“We need to constitute a separate collection and disposal system for masks and gloves at source, without leakages,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, an independent waste management expert. “States like Goa and Kerala had a relatively better segregation system in place even before the pandemic and added just another vertical. The strengthening of Panchayati Raj institution, effective communication till the grassroots, decentralisation of responsibilities and funding are crucial.”

“Small and medium enterprises must be incentivised and more emphasis laid on local initiatives,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, an independent waste management expert. “Around 70% of marine litter is a result of mismanagement on land.”

“Biomedical waste disposal is not lucrative enough for hospitals since they have to pay recyclers and therefore, some of them go for illegal dumping,” noted Anil Choudhary from the Green Waves Environmental Solutions, Telangana. A senior official from the Central Pollution Control Board said that it is upon the state pollution boards to keep the violators in check.

“The waste that we see ashore is only the tip of the iceberg as ocean beds end up taking the brunt,” said Bharath Bangera, a Clean Kundapura Project volunteer, Udupi district, Karnataka. “We removed 1,000 kg of plastic in Kodi beach in a four-week cleanup drive since July. There weren’t many masks as villagers prefer cloth over single-use masks.”

Kodi beach, Udupi district, Karnataka. Photo credit: Clean Kundapura Project Volunteers

Covid-19 has also backfired the significant wins over plastic waste. “The quarantine centres in Trivandrum have switched from stainless steel utensils to plastic cups and plates,” said Shibu Nair, India Coordinator, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives- Asia Pacific. “No one is disputing the importance of keeping frontliners well-protected but it is time to go beyond single-use plastic safeguards and come up with environment-friendly and sustainable alternatives.”

“Reusable masks, gloves and frequent handwash should become the norm,” said Shibu Nair. “PPEs can be sterilised, washed, reused later to be shredded and recycled.”

Marine litter

It is estimated that Asian rivers are responsible for 86% of the total global plastic emission to the ocean. An ongoing United Nations Environment Programme project started out last year studying plastic litter entering the Ganga river and as a second phase it will survey the types of single-use plastics that had increased due to Covid-19.

“The CounterMEASURE project aims to find how plastic waste enters river Ganga and the types of single-use plastics that had increased due to Covid-19,” said Atul Bagai, who heads the United Nations Environment Programme’s India office. The United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development”.

“We have seen plastic debris in microscopic planktons, which form the basis of marine food chain but the quantum of plastic that has made it to the system of larger predatory fish like sharks, tuna and snappers is unknown,” said Naveen Namboothri, a marine biologist. Abandoned fishing nets are also deadly for marine lives and they constitute the majority of plastic pollution in oceans, last year’s report by Greenpeace had stated.

“Right now I am treating four turtles, which were entangled in nets and had their limbs amputated due to the strangulation,” said Dr Shantanu Kalambi, a veterinarian with the Reef Watch Marine Conservation Centre in Kundapur. “A large piece of plastic was found in one of them too. Consuming plastic can injure their internal organs and unable to feed, they die in pain and starvation.”

“Lockdown or not, we continue to have dolphins and turtles, landing dead ashore,” said Dr Shantanu Kalambi. “Oil spill is also another concern.”

The divers removed more than 1,500 kg of waste over three rounds of cleanup at the Rushikonda beach, Visakhapatnam. Photo credit: Platypus Escapes, Visakhapatnam

India joined the United Nations Environment’s “Clean Seas Campaign” in 2018. The first step towards the goal was to frame a National Marine Litter Policy by studying marine pollution on the country’s 7,500-km coastline. “The work on formulating the policy got stalled due to lockdown,” said MV Ramana Murthy, Director, National Centre for Coastal Research. “Marine litter is threatening to change the entire ecosystem as once debris enter the sea, we lack resources to clean-up. Plastic and biomedical waste littered near river mouths, get washed down the waterways and end up in ocean beds during monsoons.”

“While it is dangerous for aquatic lives, it also makes marine food unsafe as once microplastics enter the human chain, they could be carcinogenic in the long-term,” said Murthy. “There have been sporadic developments in Chennai and Pondicherry on filtering plastics in the estuaries just before they enter the sea but marine litter issues can be tackled only through a collective discourse by all states along the coastline. Unless there are proactive measures to ensure awareness and nil littering by people, the high-budget river cleaning projects will only be a temporary solution.”

According to M Rajeevan, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, there is a need to conduct studies on PPE and mask litter. “Research has been initiated to find the effects of the pandemic on marine ecosystem,” he said. “The way forward is to estimate the source and also investigate how marine litter is reaching the ocean. There should also be policies to control at source by augmenting biomedical waste treatment facilities and improving the collection system to meet the increased load of marine litter.”

India’s discourse is dominated by terrestrial issues, with a bare understanding of coasts. “Oceans make up three-fourths of the earth’s surface, produce 50% of the oxygen we need to survive and are a large carbon sink,” said Puja Mitra, founder, Terra Conscious, Goa. “Protection of the marine ecosystem has to begin by addressing the concerns of coastal communities, developing marine tourism guidelines, funding research on marine species, restoring beach habitats and stopping port expansions handling hazardous cargo in biodiversity-rich areas, home to key marine species such as cetaceans, sea turtles, corals etc.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.