UPSC MAINS 2019: Beat Plastic Pollution

Plastic Pollution


Topic: Beat Plastic Pollution

Topic in Syllabus: GS Paper 3: Ecology and Environment


Plastic Pollution

Facts about Plastic pollution:

  • Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.
  • 50 percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw away.
  • We currently recover only five percent of the plastics we produce.
  • The average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year.
  • Plastic accounts for around 10 percent of the total waste we generate.
  • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California and is the largest ocean garbage site in the world. This floating mass of plastic is twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life six to one.
  • Plastic constitutes approximately 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile.
  • As of 2018, about 380 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide each year.
  • From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9% has been recycled and another 12% has been incinerated

Facts about Plastic pollution


Plastic Pollution:

Plastic pollution is the introduction of plastic products into the environment which then upset the existing ecosystems in different ways. These pollutants cause environmental degradation and also affect different living organisms and their habitats negatively.

  • When plastic products accumulate in the environment, they begin to cause problems for wildlife, humans, and other living organisms.
  • They create conditions that are not favorable for healthy living and proper growth. This is what is essentially referred to as plastic pollution.
  • Plastic pollution is similar to any other type of environmental degradation, the only major difference here being that the major pollutants are made from plastic.


Causes of Plastic Pollution:

There are many reasons why plastic pollution takes place. The biggest contributing factor has to be human activities because they are the ones that manufacture plastics and then introduce them into the environment. Some of the common causes of this type of pollution include:

1. Plastic bags from shopping:

  • When you buy items from the retail store, chances are that they’ll be packaged in plastic bags. Most of them are thermoplastics that are produced in large quantities. When these plastics have been used, they are usually thrown away or discarded because the next time you go back to the store, your items will be packaged in new plastic bags.
  • Many people shop regularly and that means that the amount of plastic bags introduced into the environment also increase at a faster pace. Since most of the plastics are also low cost and thin, they can only be used a couple of times before they tear.
  • These shopping bags are major polluters of the environment and it’s common to see them thrown around.

2. Plastic Toys:

  • Most toys are usually made of plastic. This is usually taken as a safety measure because kids can easily injure themselves with metallic toys.

3. Pet Bottles:

  • Pet bottles are also common plastic pollutants.
  • These bottles are normally used for feeding or administering medication.
  • The damaged bottles are then disposed of and they end up polluting the environment in one way or the other.

4. Failure to recycle:

  • Failure to recycle or reuse plastic materials is another major cause of plastic pollution.
  • The failure to recycle is one of the main reasons why plastic pollution is such a major concern the world over because it seems that the more the world population increases, the bigger the problem becomes.

5. Using Plastic Disposables:

  • People who host parties and use plastic disposable cups, plates, forks and knives are the main culprits here.
  • As much as they make work easier because they eliminate the need to wash utensils after the party, it’s also detrimental to the environment.

6. Poor Disposal of Plastic Waste:

  • Plastics do not degrade easily because of the type of materials that they are made of.
  • That’s the reason why when you dispose of a plastic bottle or paper bag in your compound, chances are that even one year down the line it will still be there.


Effects of Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution has so many negative effects on human, plant, and marine life as well as other living organisms. Here are some of them:



  • Red, white, and light brown plastic particles floating on the surface are mistaken for plankton
  • Light brown particles resemble fish eggs
  • Birds scavenging for food in the trash thrown overboard by ship may ingest plastic
  • Birds who feed through pursuit (e.g. penguin) or plunge (e.g. pelican) diving do not have the time to distinguish food from plastic as they dive into the water
  • Parent birds, trying to feed their chicks, may regurgitate plastic into the chicks’ mouths
  • Parent birds may integrate plastic into their nests
  • Toxic chemicals leach out of plastics and can be ingested by birds
  • Birds’ wings and necks may get caught up in pieces of plastic bags


  • Plastics cause the birds internal blockages and injuries.
  • Birds are usually not able to process or excrete the plastic they have consumed
  • Birds with plastic in their stomachs may stop feeling hungry, stop hunting for food, and eventually starve to death
  • Chicks who have ingested plastics can suffer intestinal obstructions and may develop ulcers
  • Plastic particles are now being found in the stomachs of birds in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic. This is a signal that our plastic pollution is increasing because these areas were considered to be untouched by pollution.

Effects of Plastic Pollution




  • They may ingest the toxic chemicals leached from plastics
  • When small fish eat plastic and a bigger fish eats many of these little (contaminated) fish, the big fish ends up with an accumulation of plastic in its system


  • Ingestion of plastic causes intestinal injury and death
  • Entangled fish cannot move to escape predators or to look for food
  • Fish and marine mammals wounded by plastic rings or ropes may develop infections in their open wounds.




  • Jellyfish are a turtle’s favourite food! But, turtles can’t tell the difference between a jellyfish and a floating plastic bag
  • Turtles also ingest plastic ropes, Styrofoam, and other plastic fishing equipment
  • They may ingest the toxic chemicals leached from plastics
  • They become entangled in plastic rings and fishing nets


  • Plastic ingestion causes blockage in the gut, ulceration, internal perforation, and death
  • Turtles may feel full because of the plastic, causing them to starve to death
  • Entangled turtles cannot move to escape predators or to look for food
  • Turtles that get trapped in plastic rings eventually grow around them, causing their bodies to be deformed and their organs to not develop properly.


Coral Reefs


  • Plastic pollution from the land gets carried into the sea and other water bodies
  • Plastics may be carried into the sea through rivers, streams, and storm drains
  • Ships may also be a source of pollution out at sea.


  • When plastics from land move to the sea, they bring along sediments that smother corals
  • Pesticides from land carried on plastics affect coral reproduction and growth
  • Sewage carried on plastics to the sea introduce pathogens into coral reefs
  • Fishing gear (e.g. nets) become entangled on corals and organisms in coral reefs
  • Waves may break off pieces of corals where debris had been attached
  • Plastic items can weigh down on corals and break them
  • Plastic pollution blocks the sunlight that is essential for the survival of corals.




  • Plastic may soak up toxic chemicals before even moving into the sea
  • When fish consume plastics and toxic chemicals leached by plastics, we eat those contaminated fish
  • Even if a fish is cleaned before cooking, we may still be contaminated with toxic chemicals in its flesh


Chemicals humans are exposed to due to plastic pollution (drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated fish) are associated with:

  • Cancers
  • Birth defects
  • Infertility
  • Immune system problems
  • Childhood development issues
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Heart, brain, and liver diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Lead, cadmium, and mercury poisoning


Tourism and Livelihood:


  • Plastics wash up on beaches
  • Landfills and other open spaces are littered with plastic garbage
  • Sewage systems can become blocked
  • Plastics find their way to rivers and other sources of freshwater
  • Plastic manufacturers and factories throw plastic waste and toxic chemicals into nearby water bodies


  • Tourists come to Belize to be in “paradise”. Plastic pollution will have negative impacts on tourism if it decreases the beauty of our country
  • Plastics on beaches can be dangerous to our children and pets
  • Coastal cleanups can cost a lot of money
  • Areas littered with plastic look unhygienic and ugly
  • The malfunctioning of sewage systems can increase the spread of diseases
  • Affects the fertility of soil
  • The deaths of organisms due to plastic pollution has negative economic impacts on the country – refer to Biodiversity Module.

Plastic Pollution - Solutions


Legislature Measures taken by India to prevent Plastic pollution:

Plastic has multiple uses and the physical and chemical properties lead to commercial success. However, the indiscriminate disposal of plastic has become a major threat to the environment. In particular, the plastic carry bags are the biggest contributors of littered waste and every year, millions of plastic bags end up in to the environment vis-a-vis soil, water bodies, water courses, etc and it takes an average of one thousand years to decompose completely. Therefore, to address the issue of scientific plastic waste management, the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 were notified in 2011, which included plastic waste management. The Government has notified the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, in suppression of the earlier Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011.


The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 aim to:

  • Increase minimum thickness of plastic carry bags from 40 to 50 microns and stipulate minimum thickness of 50 micron for plastic sheets also to facilitate collection and recycle of plastic waste
  • Expand the jurisdiction of applicability from the municipal area to rural areas, because plastic has reached rural areas also
  • To bring in the responsibilities of producers and generators, both in plastic waste management system and to introduce collect back system of plastic waste by the producers/brand owners, as per extended producers responsibility
  • To introduce collection of plastic waste management fee through pre-registration of the producers, importers of plastic carry bags/multilayered packaging and vendors selling the same for establishing the waste management system
  • To promote use of plastic waste for road construction as per Indian Road Congress guidelines or energy recovery, or waste to oil etc. for gainful utilization of waste and also address the waste disposal issue; to entrust more responsibility on waste generators, namely payment of user charge as prescribed by local authority, collection and handing over of waste by the institutional generator, event organizers.
  • An eco-friendly product, which is a complete substitute of the plastic in all uses, has not been found till date. In the absence of a suitable alternative, it is impractical and undesirable to impose a blanket ban on the use of plastic all over the country. The real challenge is to improve plastic waste management systems.


What’s new in Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016

  • Rural areas have been brought in ambit of these Rules since plastic has reached to rural areas also. Responsibility for implementation of the rules is given to Gram Panchayat.
  • First time, responsibility of waste generators is being introduced. Individual and bulk generators like offices, commercial establishments, industries are to segregate the plastic waste at source, handover segregated waste, pay user fee as per bye-laws of the local bodies.
  • Plastic products are left littered after the public events (marriage functions, religious gatherings, public meetings etc) held in open spaces. First time, persons organising such events have been made responsible for management of waste generated from these events.
  • Use of plastic sheet for packaging, wrapping the commodity except those plastic sheet’s thickness, which will impair the functionality of the product are brought under the ambit of these rules. A large number of commodities are being packed/wrapped in to plastic sheets and thereafter such sheets are left for littered. Provisions have been introduced to ensure their collection and channelization to authorised recycling facilities.
  • State Pollution Control Board (SPCBs) will not grant/renew registration of plastic bags, or multi-layered packaging unless the producer proposes the action plan endorsed by the concerned State Development Department.
  • Producers to keep a record of their vendors to whom they have supplied raw materials for manufacturing carry bags, plastic sheets, and multi-layered packaging. This is to curb manufacturing of these products in unorganised sector.
  • The entry points of plastic bags/plastic sheets/multi-layered packaging in to commodity supply chain are primarily the retailers and street vendors. They have been assigned the responsibility of not to provide the commodities in plastic bags/plastic sheets/multi-layered packaging which do not conform to these rules. Otherwise, they will have to pay the fine.
  • Plastic carry bag will be available only with shopkeepers/street vendors pre-registered with local bodies on payment of certain registration fee. The amount collected as registration fee by local bodies is to be used for waste management.
  • Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has been mandated to formulate the guidelines for thermoset plastic (plastic difficult to recycle). In the earlier Rules, there was no specific provision for such type of plastic.
  • Manufacturing and use of non-recyclable multi-layered plastic to be phased in two years.


Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2018:

  • The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has notified the Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2018 on March 27, 2018.
  • The amended Rules lay down that the phasing out of Multilayered Plastic (MLP) is now applicable to MLP, which are “non-recyclable, or non-energy recoverable, or with no alternate use.”
  • The amended Rules also prescribe a central registration system for the registration of the producer/importer/brand owner. The Rules also lay down that any mechanism for the registration should be automated and should take into account ease of doing business for producers, recyclers and manufacturers.
  • The centralized registration system will be evolved by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the registration of the producer/importer/brand owner. While a national registry has been prescribed for producers with presence in more than two states, a state-level registration has been prescribed for smaller producers/brand owners operating within one or two states.
  • In addition, Rule 15 of the Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2018 on “explicit pricing of carry bags” has been omitted.



Plastic pollution has so many negative effects. They are not confined to one segment of the ecosystem. Different components of the environment are affected and this causes loss of biodiversity. The planet is much better when it’s clean and pollution is kept at a minimum or completely eradicated. People have to be ready to do what is necessary to make that happen. The business community has its role to play. Yes, they are after making profits because that is what motivates them. It’s obvious that nearly all of the causes of pollution are as a result of human actions. Changing our ways of life would help reduce it.


Sample Question:

What do you understand by plastic pollution? Discuss the effects of plastic pollution. Examine How the Seaweed-Eating Microbe Could Help Fight Plastic Pollution?