Ocean Dumping

There can hardly be a human being so unaware that he doesn’t know the significance of the oceans to our environment. Apart from being a source of the lubricants of modern economy, natural gas and petroleum, oceans also provide us with the most important food ingredient all around the world, common salt. Oceans are an ecosystem in themselves and the marine life they house is a source of livelihood to many people. Also, they play an important part in the water cycle and are responsible for climatic shifts and changes all over the world. This is precisely why oceans and their preservation deserve as much public attention as that is lavished on other environmental concerns.

Ocean dumping is the practice of dumping all sorts of garbage in the oceanic waters. Industrial waste reigns supreme in this process, since the oceans provide a convenient out-of-sight, out-of-mind way to get rid of the junk that industries churn out during the course of production. But industries aren’t the only culprits. Apart from the construction waste, demolition debris contributed by them, there is also a whole lot of other stuff. Sewage, chemical and nuclear waste of research foundations and the all-pervasive littering of beaches and other coastal picnic and recreational areas also add to the ocean trash.

A report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) says that plastic, especially plastic bags and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most common of all ocean pollutants. Also, plastic is the most dangerous to be dumped into the ocean with regards to marine life. Easily mistakable as food by marine mammals, fish, birds and turtles, plastic proves lethal for them. In fact, a five-year survey of fulmars in the North Sea region found that 95 percent of these seabirds contained plastic in their stomachs. Studies of the Northeast Atlantic plankton have found plastic in samples dating back to the 1960s, with a significant increase in abundance in time.

It’s very obvious whom these marine organisms owe the plastic in their platter to. It’s largely the handiwork of the tourists who visit beaches and conveniently dispose off their mineral water bottles, juice PET bottles and other plastic waste, unmindful of the consequence of their carelessness. To quote the UNEP report once again, “The tourism and recreation sector has a significant impact on the state of seas and coastlines around the world. In some tourist areas of the Mediterranean, more than 75 percent of the annual waste production is generated during the summer season. Shoreline activities account for 58 percent of the marine litter in the Baltic Sea region, and almost half in Japan and the Republic of Korea.”

But careless tourists too are outdone by the dumping of radioactive wastes and soil from contaminated nuclear defense sites. The dumping of these hazardous wastes is permitted to a certain extent, but these permits are almost always, grossly misused. Permits lead to the possibility of collisions, groundings and accidents that result in de facto ocean dumping, more often than not of materials not allowed to be dumped. At one point of time, canister tanks containing these hazardous wastes were allowed to be dumped in the water, but the bursting open of these canisters caused this process to be halted. There are three main direct public health risks from ocean dumping: the first one being the risk to humans by the consumption of contaminated marine organisms, the other occupational hazards of injuries and accidents faced by the fishermen whose livelihood depends upon the state of the oceans and the exposure of humans to the waste that is washed up on the beaches. Periodically, medical and other wastes from both legal and illegal dumping have washed up on beaches, resulting in exposure to beachgoers and, in some cases, the closure of beaches until the wastes could be removed. Consumption of fish contaminated from radioactive wastes may pose a serious problem worldwide because of nuclear waste dumping in the oceans.

In India, the situation is far worse than it is in the US or Europe. First, there is hardly any law that safeguards the cleanliness of its beaches and thus, all the beach coast of the country is free to be littered by the many tourists that visit the glorious waters of the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. To add to that, the Indian government, in 2007 proposed a newly drafted hazardous waste management law that seeks to undo established, science-based definitions of waste and consider waste that is being recycled somehow less hazardous than the waste being land filled in order to curry favor with hazardous scrapping industries. “Through a not-so-subtle mangling of international definitions for “waste”, “disposal” and “safe recycling” the Indian Government has designed a veritable global waste funnel that will ensure that the world’s waste will surge to our shores,” said Ravi Agarwal, Director of Toxics Link. Among examples of departures from the Basel Convention and international law are the following:
• India has decided that dumping in rivers, oceans, and lakes, or burning waste somehow does not constitute disposal and therefore that which is dumped in aquatic environments is not waste.

• The international definition of “environmentally sound management” has been ignored in favor of a new definition of “safe for recycling” that states that as long as a material contains less than 60% contamination by a hazardous constituent, then it’s safe!

Further it is contrary to India’s constitution because (provision on the State’s obligation to protect people’s right to health and environment), instead of an environmental law being protective of human health and the environment, this is trade centric for hazardous waste.

Such draconian trade based laws that take an extremely short-term view of profit and benefit can hardly do anything to improve the world that we live in. To actually improve the state of the oceans that we are blessed with, the laws need to be stricter. The waste that is “permitted” to be dumped into oceans should have a stringent quality parameter. The sewage dumped into water should be adequately treated, so as to not endanger marine life and thus human life too. Also, the penalties imposed on the Industries and nuclear laboratories should be far heavier. That will be a sure-fire way to deal with the defaulters. And most important of all, all beaches should be declared no-litter zones. And the government needs to not just declare so, but also actually carry it through. In a country suffering from rampant unemployment, it can be hardly difficult to hire beach cleaners and supervisors who make sure that beachgoers keep their plastics to themselves. These and many other measures need to be employed to save our precious oceans.

Deeksha Khanna

[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthigh/2104820030/]