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From India to Spain, plastic waste becoming a global threat to ecosystems

A worker rummages through plastic waste filling a "river" in the Taimur Nagar district of New Delhi, on June 12, 2018. The waste will be washed away by rains and eventually reach the Indian Ocean through the Ganges River. (Mainichi)

NEW DELHI/MURCIA, Spain -- As sun beats down, pushing the temperature up to a sweltering 40 degrees Celsius, hot air mixed with the stench of decay blows from the "river" in the Taimur Nagar district of New Delhi, India's capital.

The canal in the poor neighborhood, where many illegal migrants live, is filled with plastic bags and straws as deep as the people are tall, and this garbage is partially covered by scraps of food.

According to a local nongovernmental organization and other sources, one-third of the waste is from the neighborhood, but two-thirds was carted in by local residents along with plastic bottles that can be exchanged for money. Plastic bags and other waste that came with those bottles were cast into the makeshift dump.

"I can't afford to think about plastics because I am very poor and I have to work hard," said Buto, 39, an illegal immigrant looking for plastic bottles.

Plastic bags, an umbrella and other plastic waste found inside the body of a dead sperm whale in February this year are on display in the region of Murcia in southeastern Spain on June 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

When the impending rainy season comes, the rainwater will push the plastic waste into the Ganges River and then into the Indian Ocean. "Unfortunately this canal is the cause of sea and river pollution," laments Chowdhury, a resident in charge of public hygiene. According to local newspapers, some estimates say as much as 90,000 to 240,000 metric tons of plastic flow into the ocean every year.

Some 8,000 kilometers northwest of New Delhi, near Cabos de Palos in southeastern Spain, the emaciated body of a 10-meter-long male sperm whale lay washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean.

Alicia Gomez de Ramon and five colleagues at the El Valle Wildlife Recovery Center examined the whale's body to determine its cause of death and found pieces of plastic in its stomach and intestines. Alicia was not surprised by the finding, because plastic makes up of over 80 percent of the waste washed up on seashores, and many wild marine animals have the material in their systems. But the amount of plastic Alicia and others found inside the whale made them speechless: It took them some three and a half hours to remove as much as 29 kilograms of waste, mostly plastic. "We extracted one piece, then another, then another ..." Alicia recalled. Some of the waste was plastic bags with Arabic characters, which are used in the Middle East and North Africa, surrounding the Mediterranean. "I was sad and overwhelmed. How could something like this happen?"

The oceans are connected, and waste produced at one point is accordingly carried to other distant parts of the globe, causing pain and suffering to wildlife, and harming Earth. The sperm whale appeared to symbolize that vicious cycle.

The 29 kilograms of waste was divided into 47 types, including plastic bags, bottles, umbrellas and other daily items, as well as fishing nets and parts of greenhouses. After being washed and dried, it still weighed a hefty 19 kilograms.

The body of a sperm whale lies washed up on the shore near Cabos de Palos in southeastern Spain in February. The marine mammal was about one-third of the average weight for its size. (Photo courtesy of the El Valle Wildlife Recovery Center)

Alicia thinks that the sperm whale starved to death because the animal had so much plastic waste inside its body it had no room for food. The cetacean weighed only about 7 tons -- one-third of an average sperm whale measuring 10 meters in length. Sperm whales can dive to a depth of 3,000 meters, where they eat mainly squid in the ocean's depths. The dead sperm whale could have taken in plastic waste by mistake when it came up to the surface for air and ended up accumulating the indigestible materials in its body, she says.

So how much plastic waste exists in the oceans across the globe? It is hard to tell exactly. One estimate made by a team of researchers including those from the University of Georgia, published in the journal Science in 2015, says that between 4.8 million tons and 12.7 million tons of plastic waste flow into the oceans every year. The oft-mentioned report names China and southeastern Asian countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam as the main sources of plastic pollution. The plastic waste that was not processed properly on the ground reaches the oceans mainly through rivers.

The Mediterranean, where the dead sperm whale was found, has been dubbed a sea with one of the highest levels of plastic pollution in the world by the World Wide Fund for Nature. The Strait of Gibraltar, which links the sea to the Atlantic Ocean, is narrow and waste coming from the surrounding countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa tend to stay inside the Mediterranean. Resorts around the Mediterranean accept as many as 200 million visitors every year, and waste flowing into it shoots up by 40 percent during summer.

Alicia emphasizes that the beaching of the dead whale is "just the tip of the iceberg." Most sperm whales go down to the seabed when they die, making it difficult to figure out just how much plastic waste they have ingested. But in Spain, a case of a whale having died from mistakenly eating plastic was reported some 20 years ago.

At the El Valle Wildlife Recovery Center where Alicia works, plastic straws and bottle caps were found in the bodies of five dead sea turtles. Sea turtles are believed to mistake plastic bags floating in the ocean for jellyfish and eat them. Alicia says up to about 5 percent of dead local sea turtles are estimated to have died from ingesting plastic waste.

Lightweight, durable plastic products float around the world's oceans, and some break into pieces under sunlight and by the impact of waves. They are then eaten by fish and thus enter the food chain. A study by a team of researchers at the University of Plymouth found that some 700 marine species had plastic waste inside their systems. Of them, 17 percent were designated as endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. A World Economic Forum report warns that the amount of plastic waste in the oceans worldwide will outweigh fish in 2050 if its flow into the seas continues at the current pace.

"It is a problem of all humanity. We are destructing a planet," says Javier Celdran, the minister in charge of the environment in the region of Murcia in Spain, alarmed by the level of plastic pollution. It was the regional government that released pictures of the dead sperm whale with the plastic waste inside its body and provided the results of the inspection carried out by Alicia's team in April. The shocking news was reported by European and American mainstream media and went viral throughout the globe.

At the same time, the regional government initiated a video campaign with the European Union to reduce the amount of one-time use plastic discharged into the environment. The video clips, created in English, Chinese and Spanish -- three languages spoken by many globally -- warn that plastic pieces are entering human bodies through the food chain.

The plastic bags bearing Arabic characters that were found inside the sperm whale are to be exhibited at the El Valle Wildlife Recovery Center. The display is intended to educate children visiting the center, where a zoo featuring local wildlife is located.

Celdran thinks that the death of the sperm whale poses a fundamental question about how humans should live. "(Plastic bags) have a usage time of only 15 minutes, but (they) take 200 years to break down," he said. "We have to change habits of humanity. We have to stop this kind of product. It is a cultural shift."

(Japanese original by So Matsui, New Delhi Bureau, and Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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