- Unscientific disposal of unsegregated solid waste along rivers in Jammu and Kashmir contribute to growing microplastic pollution across northwestern Himalayas.
- Low temperatures during winters, followed by various environmental stressors are causing plastics to break down into microplastics faster and impacting macrofauna like molluscs.
- Uncontrolled tourism is contributing to plastic waste, even in remote areas lacking an efficient waste management system.
- Difficulty in measuring microplastics in biological cells and the environment hinder the understanding of the impacts of microplastics and possible solutions.
A new study has confirmed the presence of microplastic contaminants in Jhelum river, locally known as Vyeth, in Jammu and Kashmir. The study suggests that improper municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal sites along the Jhelum river are a potential source of these microplastics.
When exposed to environmental stresses such as changes in temperature and UV rays, plastic disintegrates into smaller fragments. Plastic bits smaller than five millimetres are categorised as microplastics. Some are even as tiny as nanometres.
Primary microplastics are tiny particles manufactured for commercial use, such as cosmetics, as well as microfibers that are shed from clothing, fishing nets and other textiles. Secondary microplastics result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles. The understanding of how microplastics form in different environmental conditions, however, is limited.
Microplastics in the northwestern Himalayas
To analyse the presence of microplastics in Jhelum, the study conducted by the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Srinagar and published in Science of the Total Environment journal, examined riverbank solid waste disposal sites.
The study highlights the evidence that unscientific disposal in dumping sites along the banks of water bodies, a common sight in Kashmir and throughout the country, contribute significantly to microplastic pollution.
“This study was conducted in 2022 with sampling along Jhelum river on those sites where solid waste is illegally dumped. Starting from Verinag spring, the sampling culminated at Wular lake. We found that microplastics were present in all samples. And the abundance of microplastics in water was more downstream of solid waste dumping sites,” Muneeb Farooq, researcher at NIT, Srinagar and lead author of the study, said.
Farooq mentioned that microplastics identified during the study were largely fragments of plastic carry bags and food packaging material used in the area, implying the rampant use of plastic and the improper disposal system.
Another study from 2022, published in Chemosphere, analysed the amount, types and sources of microplastics in the sediment of Anchar lake in Srinagar. It evaluated 24 samples under a microscope and used a technique called Attenuated Total Reflectance Fourier Transform Infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopy to observe their composition.
“The results showed the most common type of plastic found in the sediment was polyamide (PA), which accounted for 96%, followed by polyethylene terephthalate (PET) at 1.4%, polystyrene (PS) at 1.4%, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) at 0.9%, and polypropylene (PP) at 0.7%,” the study stated.
Causes behind microplastics in water bodies
In addition to environmental stresses like UV exposure, some factors that may contribute to the production of microplastics are large local temperature differences between summers and winters. Researchers suggest that when frozen, plastic waste becomes brittle and further vulnerable to breaking down by any slight environmental pressures.
Plastic items, while ubiquitous in urban areas, are increasing in availability in remote areas of Kashmir as well. The union territory does not have an efficient solid waste management system. “Consequently, riverbanks are one of the common unscientific disposal sites. Not only in rural areas, there is also no robust solid waste management, especially of plastic waste, in Srinagar city as well, except for one landfill site at Achan. Thus, we are facing a challenge of high volume of plastic waste and subsequently microplastics,” Khalid Muzamil, assistant professor at the Department of Civil Engineering at NIT, said.
Muzamil pointed to a lack of regulations with regard to uncontrolled tourism in the valley. Treks to alpine lakes in places like Sonamarg, Pahalgam, Gurez and Bangus valley have seen a surge, bringing more plastic to these ecologically fragile areas. “Without immediate intervention, the situation may get out of control and our glaciers, forests and wildlife will face the brunt of plastic and microplastic pollution,” he said.
Irfan Rashid, an assistant professor at the Department of Geoinformatics, University of Kashmir, said that it has been reported that microplastics can hasten the melting of glacier ice. Microplastics in alpine lakes can impact biodiversity through alteration of the radiation budget and accumulation in the food chain. Microplastics and other contaminants can trap solar radiations which leads to the heating of surface water and decreases the transparency of the water as well as blocking light. Further, when microplastics are found in water bodies, they accumulate in the food chain making their way through marine life all the way up to humans.
“We do not have any scientific literature on microplastics in Himalayan glaciers. However, given the concerns of accelerated glacier melt and presence in melt waters, national, transboundary and global initiatives are needed to curb this emerging menace. Making adventure tourism plastic-free and reducing usage of plastics could be something that policymakers need to look into,” Rashid said.
Ravail Singh, a senior scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research–Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR–IIIM) is presently investigating the impact of microplastics on macrofauna in Jammu’s riverine habitats. He said microplastic pollution in the region’s water bodies primarily stems from direct dumping of plastic waste, while a smaller portion is contributed by surface runoff and religious activities. Housing colonies settled along the river banks openly release untreated drainage and septic waste directly into the rivers.
“My expertise lies in macrofauna, particularly molluscs, which are mainly consumed by the lower middle class. Their impact on the overall population is currently negligible, but it could become a potential threat in the future,” Singh said.
Ajaz Ahmad Khan, a researcher in Singh’s laboratory is currently focused on creating a preliminary database of microplastics found in water, sediment and molluscs. “The accumulation of microplastics in water and sediment shows a diverse range, with prominent types being polystyrene, polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and microbeads. Among organisms, his findings, indicate that microplastics have been found in the gut content of various mollusc species. The dominant types in these organisms are polyethylene and PVC,” he said.
Impacts of microplastics
Managing microplastics in waste, from collection to treatment, is a challenge. “The risk associated with microplastics is that it can be transported easily from one place to another through various mediums like wind, dust, snow, rain, water, etc. If there is contamination of microplastics at a particular place, there are chances that they can contaminate other places as well,” said Muzamil. He said that the probability of bioaccumulation potential increases with decreasing size. Microplastics may also be ingested by humans, fish, birds and mammals.
Ved Prakash Ranjan, a senior project associate at CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Nagpur, said that microplastics have been detected in human blood, lungs, placentas of unborn babies, and disposable plastic cups. Currently, no permissible limits for microplastics in the environment have been recommended, a problem compounded by limitations in experimental monitoring method.
“Researchers have found some difficulties in the experimental methods since there are no standardised methods to separate and analyse microplastics. This leads to varied results. In order to truly understand the potential risks, it is imperative to establish proper standard guidelines,” said Ranjan. He emphasised that unlike most environmental pollutants, plastic comprises a complex mix of chemicals that are intentionally used to give it specific properties, such as colourants, flame retardants, UV stabilisers, pigments and antioxidants.
“Heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium are used in colourants. Therefore, the combination of additives in microplastics creates a more hazardous situation. When microplastics interact with certain metals in a symbiotic way, the metal easily sticks to the surface of the microplastics, making it far more toxic,” he said.
Pratik Kumar, an assistant professor at the Department of Civil Engineering at IIT-Jammu further elaborated that microplastics in drinking water can be analysed more easily. However, studying their presence in blood or biological cells is more challenging.
“We have to deal with background noise, such as plasma, platelets and cells in the blood, which is not typically present in drinking water. This complexity makes the analysis tougher. Scientists have observed that there can be errors in the analysis, leading to underestimation or overestimation of microplastics in the samples. Sometimes, there may be more present than reported, and other times, there may be fewer,” explained Kumar.
He pointed out when plastic enters ecosystems, it inevitably transforms into microplastics. The smaller its size, the more danger it poses. Nanoplastics can easily enter biological cells compared to microplastics. “So, even if we focus on plastic degradation, it’s still not good for the ecosystem. Unfortunately, we currently lack adequate infrastructure to efficiently recycle plastic. Instead, what we should aim for is reducing the use of plastics right from the source.”
Kumar adds that there is also a need to establish engineered landfills and regulate types of plastics allowed in these landfills. Research has identified plastics that degrade faster, so limiting their disposal can be beneficial. Implementing a door-to-door plastic collection system can prevent plastics from breaking down. “The government has issued guidelines on the minimum thickness of plastic, as thicker plastics are easier to recycle. However, in rural areas, these guidelines are not always followed. Creating awareness about the harmful effects of plastics and how to combat plastic pollution would be beneficial,” he said.
Banner image: Collection of samples for research along river Jhelum. Photo by Muneeb Farooq.