Tiny white plastic pellets have begun to wash ashore on the beaches of Mumbai and its neighbouring district of Palghar in the past few days, raising concern among environmentalists that they could enter the food chain and damage marine biodiversity.

However, neither the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board nor the municipal corporations in Palghar and Mumbai have taken any action about this as yet.

The pellets, measuring up to 5 millimeters, were first spotted on July 23 at Aksa beach in northwestern Mumbai by a lifeguard.

“They thought it was jellyfish,” said Shaunak Modi, co-founder of the Coastal Conservation Foundation. “When our network informed us, our team reached the beach and realised it was plastic.”

Modi added that they subsequently began to inquire if similar sightings had been reported at other beaches.

On July 24, the group received information about plastic pellets on the beaches at Versova and Juhu, south of Aksa.

Two days later, lifeguard Santosh Tandel found a sack of pellets at Juhu beach near the Citizen Hotel. “It was heavy,” Tandel told Scroll. “When we tore it, we found tiny plastic balls in it.”

The sack bore the name of Hanwha TotalEnergies Petrochemicals – a South Korean company that works in construction, manufacturing, aerospace and green energy sectors. Scroll has sent an email query to the company. The story will be updated if they respond.

Tandel said they took the sack to Santacruz police station. “The police visited the beach and made a punchnama,” he added.

A sack of plastic granules found on Juhu beach by a lifeguard. Photo credit: Santosh Tandel

Concerns of marine life danger

Modi said the source of the pellets has still not been established. “We do not know the quantity that has washed ashore,” he said. “When we tested them in water, most pellets were floating. This could be mistaken as food and consumed by birds and fishes.”

Off the Mumbai coast, environmentalists fear that dolphins, turtles and various variety of fish could feed on the pellets.

Microplastic has long remained a subject of worry for marine life. Once lodged inside an organism’s digestive system, plastic can lead to the fish’s death or enter the food chain, with humans being the end-consumers.

Modi told Scroll they found crows feeding on the pellets on Aksa beach. “It looks like a tiny jellyfish and can be easily mistaken,” he added.

The plastic pellets removed from beach. Photo credit: Shaunak Modi

Nandakumar Pawar, from NGO Ekvira Aai Pratishthan, said the plastic could also affect the growth of the mangroves the line Mumbai’s coast. “Mangroves are like maternity wards for fishes to lay eggs,” Pawar told Scroll. “Plastic can harm both the mangrove and the fish.”

Lack of action

Stalin Dayanand, the director of NGO Vanashakti, said that the spill is a marine accident.

Dayanand said the high tide will throw the sacks and pellets on the coast. “The beach will have to be cleaned using a sand filter soon,” Dayanand said, adding that the municipal corporation, collector’s office, fisheries department and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board will have to together work on it.

Modi, from the Coastal Conservation Foundation, said he has already filed a complaint with disaster management cell of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

Mahesh Narvekar, head of disaster cell, told Scroll that the complaint has been forwarded to the Solid Waste Management department. “The SWM department cleans the beaches,” he said.

Nitin Parab, deputy chief engineer in solid waste management department, said that beach clean up is undertaken every day. “We are aware of these pellets,” he said. “From Versova beach, about four sacks and from Juhu beach one sack full of pellets was cleaned along with other garbage.”

An empty sack of TotalEnergies Petrochemicals that washed on Mumbai beach. Photo credit: Shaunak Modi

An official from Maharashtra Pollution Control Board said if the pellets have been washed up on the Palghar and Mumbai coasts, the high tide may also drive them to Raigad, Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri coastlines. Two officials attached with the pollution board, however, added that the pellet spill “does not fall under our jurisdiction”.

Maharashtra environmental department director Abhay Pimparkar told Scroll that since the plastic pellets were noted on beach, the issue falls under the purview of ports department. “This is not related to us in any way,” Pimparkar said, when asked about plans to mitigate the impact of the spill.

Avinash Dhakne, a member secretary of the pollution control body, did not respond to calls or texts.