Ganga, a sink of microplastics

Cleaning efforts on the Ganga has so far focussed on focussed on creating sewage treatment capacities in the major urban centres along the river. (Image: Richard IJzermans, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Cleaning efforts on the Ganga has so far focussed on focussed on creating sewage treatment capacities in the major urban centres along the river. (Image: Richard IJzermans, Flickr Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A new study by the Delhi-based environment NGO Toxics Link reveals the presence of microplastics in all samples collected from the river at Haridwar, Kanpur and Varanasi. The study titled ‘Quantitative analysis of microplastics along River Ganga’ finds that the river is heavily polluted with multiple kinds of plastic including microplastics. Microplastics are synthetic solid particles sized ranging 1 micrometre (μm) to 5 millimetre (mm) that are insoluble in water. They are a major source of marine pollution of significant concern, due to their persistence, ubiquity and toxic potential.

Untreated sewage from many cities along the river’s course, industrial waste and religious offerings wrapped in non-degradable plastics add large amounts of pollutants to the river as it flows through many cities that are densely populated are leading to pollution of Ganga. The plastic products and waste materials released or dumped in the river break down and are eventually reduced to micro particles and the river finally transports significantly large quantities downstream into the ocean which is the ultimate sink of all plastics being used by humans.

Macro and meso plastics are identified as the major concern in studies, but particle size less than 300um are more dangerous and affect the foodweb (uptake of microplastics by marine organisms). The study finds that the river – which flows through five states covering about 2,500 km before flowing into the Bay of Bengal – is heavily polluted with microplastics.

The river water testing was carried out in collaboration with the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa. Five samples each were collected from the river Ganga at Haridwar, Kanpur, and Varanasi, in February 2020.

The samples were tested through the Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy — a technique used to identify small organic or inorganic material — to identify the exact type, or resin core present in the water.

“Essentially all along microplastics are flowing into the river system. It does reflect or suggest a direct linkage between the poor state of both solid and liquid waste management; hence it is critically important to initiate steps to remediate it, said Priti Mahesh, Chief Coordinator at Toxics Link.

The highest concentration of plastics comprising of single-use and secondary plastic products was found at Varanasi. Assi Ghat, the most popular ghat of the city showed the maximum abundance of microplastics. Additionally, one sewage outlet was observed draining the wastewater and sewage directly into the Ganga which may affect the microplastics concentration and abundance in and around the sampling site.

Other key findings of the study are:

  • The microplastic abundance in the surface water of river Ganga in Varanasi was 2.42±0.405 MPs/m3.
  • The number of microplastics detected in the surface water of river Ganga in Kanpur was 2.16±0.500 MPs/m3.
  • Haridwar has the lowest MPs/m3 (1.30±0.518) as compared to other two locations Varanasi and Kanpur.
  • Fragments were the predominant shape in all locations, followed by film and fibre. A slight difference was observed in Kanpur where fibres were more abundant than films.
  • The most frequent size range observed in all the samples was <300μm.
  • Black and brown coloured particles were found to be more in number followed by coloured particles in all three locations. The dominance of black coloured particles suggests its origin from the abrasion of tires.
  • Several types of rubbers (butadiene, polyisoprene, natural rubber) were abundantly found in the river water samples
  • 40 different types of polymers were found during the analysis. EVOH, Polyacetylene, PIP, PVC and PVAL were predominantly found in all the three locations.

The study findings clearly indicate that river pollution is linked to human activity, and plastic waste management needs to improve substantially to control land-based pollution sources. Though Plastic Waste Management Rules have been in force in the country for some years, their implementation on the ground is very poor. Improving this along with minimizing the single-use plastics could be part of the solution.

Some of the key recommendations

  • Need for further research on microplastics in the Ganga as well as other rivers in the country: A detailed study to analyse the microplastic pollution in the Ganga and other rivers will be quite useful to understand the problems related to the river waters in India. There is also a need to look at the microplastic sources, especially the primary ones.

Microplastics and human health: Microplastics and their impact on marine bodies and the environment are documented through various research studies. But there is hardly any work for assessing its impact on human health. Considering its property to absorb toxic pollutants, microplastics can have a serious impact on human health. Studies need to be taken up to understand this in-depth.

  • Strengthening of plastic waste management in the country and improved implementation of the Plastic Rules: Land-based pollution sources need to be reduced and for that plastic management needs to improve substantially.

Improved effluent and industrial discharge systems, especially around the water bodies in the country: Industrial discharge, many a time untreated, is creating havoc with our river water and the oceans. This needs serious and immediate attention. Regular monitoring and penalization on violations need to be brought in to improve the ground situation.

  • EPR to improve Plastic waste: Plastic Waste Rules brought in the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility in plastic waste management but little is being done on the ground. EPR will need to be implemented in true spirit if this massive waste stream and its spread are to be arrested.

Notifying the areas around the water bodies as a no-plastic litter zone and stringent penalties on violation: Rivers are the lifelines of any country and need to be protected. Declaring the areas around the rivers and seas as no-litter zone and no-plastic zone should be taken up as a priority.

  • Restrictions on single-use plastic products, wherever possible and where alternatives are available: Long-term solutions need to be thought of for reduction in plastic pollution. Most studies have indicated that single-use plastic is one key pollutant. Strict measures to replace them or phase them out, wherever feasible, will need to be enforced.
  • A mass campaign to bring behavioural change needs to be taken up with the desired emphasis: Public awareness will hold the key to improving plastic waste management and the subsequent reduction in microplastic pollution. Various stakeholders, including the industry, government, civil society organisations, need to join hands to bring about the change.

There is a need to look at the threat of plastic to river life more realistically, more comprehensively, and above all, with an eye on the future. A scenario build-up for the future will help the decision-makers arrive at an appropriate strategy to address the problem.

The full report can be accessed here

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