Marine Plastic Pollution: Opportunities for Sri Lanka

August 19, 2020        Reading Time: 8 minutes

Reading Time: 8 min read

*Charles Cole

Image Credits: Dustan Woodhouse/Unsplash

The availability, durability, and affordability of plastic has had transformative effects on industries such as clothing, technology, transport, and cleaning products. Since 1980, global plastic production is estimated to have accounted for 8.3 billion metric tonnes (MTs), over half of which has been discarded after a single use1 (for an overview of plastic pollution, see Figure 1). Over time, it has become increasingly apparent that plastic pollution poses a threat to both environmental sustainability and public health. This LKI Blog will provide an overview of maritime plastic pollution, examine its various economic, environmental, and health impacts, and propose policy opportunities for Sri Lanka to mitigate these effects.

Plastics in the Ocean

Plastic pollutants are generally divided into two categories: megaplastics and microplastics. Megaplastics (sometimes referred to as macroplastics) are plastic products larger than 20mm, including plastic toothbrushes, cups, bottles, bags, chairs, or vehicle parts. Gradual exposure to UV-light, chemical interactions with water, and collision with other debris result in degradation of megaplastics to form microplastics. Research has shown, that this process varies, taking anywhere from 20 years for a small plastic bag to 500 years for a plastic water bottle.2 The ocean floor is littered with heavier megaplastics, which have sunk down to cooler temperatures, resulting in less exposure to the sun and a less likely chance of degradation.3 Primary microplastics refers to debris that is under 20mm when entering the marine environment (such as microfibers, microbeads, and plastic pellets), while secondary microplastics are created from the degradation of Megaplastics. (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Overview of Plastic Pollution4

Note: Compiled by LKI.

Figure 2: Types of Plastic Pollution5

Note: Compiled by LKI.

Environmental Impacts

The small size of microplastics make them easily digestible at all levels of the food chain. Plankton, birds, turtles, mammals, and fish have all been found to have ingested mega and micro-plastic debris, either incidentally or while mistaking them for food. Ingestion of plastics can have various health implications for marine life. Chemicals such as flame-retardants and pesticides can cause sickness in organisms, while consumption of sharp objects can result in internal wounds, especially in seabirds. Larger plastics can also cause the illusion of fullness for organisms, leading to nutrient-deficiency and starvation.6

In addition to consumption of plastics, animals may find themselves trapped or strangled by objects such as rope, six-pack rings, or ‘ghost nets’; abandoned fishing nets that trap other debris, as well as marine life, as they travel through ocean currents. Ghost nets have been known to reach over 6 tonnes, and often become too heavy or large to be removed from the ocean.7 Furthermore, larger, buoyant plastics have served as ‘hitch-hiking’ vessels for organisms such as algae and mussels, who unknowingly latch onto debris and are transported around the world’s oceans by wind. This causes unnatural levels of immigration and emigration, and can seriously disrupt biodiversity by removing energy producers from marine ecosystems, leading to a decline in the population of consumers, such as fish.8

Furthermore, plastic production and mismanagement has been found to contribute to climate change. In addition to the oil consumption involved in plastic production (estimated at 4-8% of annual global oil consumption), increased plastic in the ocean disrupts the ability of phytoplankton to remove carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere via photosynthesis.9

Economic Impacts

The impact of plastics on animals translates to high economic costs for human communities. Seafood is the principal source of protein for an estimated 1 billion people,10 and plastic pollution carries the threat of damaging not only the infrastructure and productivity of commercial fisheries but also fish stocks. In addition to being harmful for consumers, decreasing fish stocks will damage the livelihoods that fishing provides for over 870 million people.11

Health Impacts

Compounds such as phthalates or Bisphenol A (BPA) are released from plastics as they biodegrade, and have been found in the urine of 95% of Americans. These chemicals have been linked to severe hormone damage, including disruptions in fertility, sexual maturation, oestrogen production,12 and, through prolonged contact with skin, dermatitis.13 These chemicals are found in food-related plastics including food packaging, plastic cutlery, plastic cups, and bottles. Furthermore, there is evidence that the transfer of plastic compounds across trophic levels carries over in human consumption of seafood.14

State of Play: Sri Lanka’s Plastic Pollution and Waste Management

The economic effects of plastic pollution have been felt in Sri Lanka. Studies suggest that microplastic pollution is one of the main causes of rapidly declining fishing stocks along the Sri Lankan coast, with fish resources plummeting from 300,000 tonnes in 1980 to just 53,000 tonnes in 2018.15 Fish accounted for 13.5% of Sri Lankan average household expenditure in 2016,16 and 60% of national protein consumption.17 What’s more, Sri Lankan fish exports are worth 1.3% of national GDP, and provide employment opportunities for 560,000 people. Preserving and protecting Sri Lankan fisheries is therefore crucial.18

Studies undertaken along the Sri Lankan South Coast, another tourist hotspot, found over 60% of sand samples and 70% of surface water samples contained microplastics, in addition to the range of larger debris scattered across the beaches themselves.19 Reports have shown that Indonesian tourist areas have suffered economically due to increased plastic pollution.20 Similarly, those who visit Sri Lanka may be harmed by interaction with debris, potentially resulting in cuts, entanglement in nets, and exposure to harmful chemicals.

Like most Indian Ocean Rim Countries, Sri Lanka has room for improvement when it comes to plastic management. The island produces 1.59 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, much of which ends up in the ocean.21 This is likely to have contributed to the Bay of Bengal’s ‘dead zone’, an oxygen-deprived area of 60,000km2 which has become uninhabitable for many organisms.22

Waste mismanagement has become a substantial threat on dry land as well, such as the increasingly hazardous garbage dump in Ella, putting its status as a prime tourist attraction, crucial to the local economy, at risk. The growth of this dump has been attributed to population growth and increased tourist activity, as well as a lack of policy direction at the national level. Safety concerns about this dump are not unfounded. In 2017, a garbage dump in Colombo collapsed resulting in 28 deaths and persistent concerns about the future of sustainable waste management in Sri Lanka.23

Sri Lanka has taken some recent steps toward reducing its plastic pollution and improving its waste management. In 2017, Sri Lanka banned the manufacture of Styrofoam and polythene products under 20 microns thick. However, the implementation and enforcement of the ban has been inadequate, and has been met with opposition from polythene manufacturers, citing risk to jobs.24 In 2018, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment worked with the Municipal Waste Recycling Program to develop an “Extended Producer Responsibility” to increase accountability for and minimise plastic mismanagement.25

In 2019, Sri Lanka was one of 187 countries to agree to add plastic to the Basel Convention, which regulates the movement of hazardous materials between states.26 Sri Lanka has also taken a leading role in regional dialogues, such as the Partnership Week for Marine Plastic Pollution Prevention in South East Asia in 2019.27 However, more initiatives need to be taken to mitigate the impact of plastic pollution in Sri Lanka.

Policy Opportunities for Sri Lanka

The main factor that will determine the effectiveness of Sri Lanka’s response to plastic pollution is constructive multi-sectoral collaboration. Academics and NGOs speaking recently at an LKI roundtable on plastic pollution suggested the cooperation of major plastic producers, in particular bottled beverage manufacturers, and researchers to increase the availability of data and develop a database highlighting microbead content for products.28

Sri Lankan government bodies such as the Central Environment Authority and Marine Environment Protection Authority should lead collaborative efforts with local and international organisations (such as Zerotrash, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and the Oceanic Society) to suggest alternative waste management schemes. These bodies should look to support and subsidise progressive waste management systems such as the “Plasticcycle” recycling programme operating along the South West Coast of Sri Lanka,29 along with plastic-alternative initiatives such as the “Sonali” bag in neighbouring Bangladesh, constructed from plant fibres.30

Furthermore, Sri Lanka needs to consider and account for population growth and increased tourism when developing disposal sites, via increased collaboration between local government and tourist agencies, dedicating either more land or a greater number of sites to prevent unmanageable and hazardous pileups.

In the long term, Sri Lanka could attempt to undertake several mitigating actions including legislating and enforcing bans on single-use plastics, promoting public awareness campaigns, and continuing to work with regional and international partners to combat plastic pollution. Any ban on plastic must be gradual and wary of economic shocks: over 400 companies in Sri Lanka are currently engaged in plastic processing, and contribute to vital industries such as water sanitation, telecommunications, and, perhaps most vitally, public health.31 Collaboration with these companies is essential to ensure a gradual and smooth transition to plastic alternatives without neglecting vital services and employment.


Sri Lanka is vulnerable to the global problem of plastic pollution, which pose environmental, economic, and public health threats. However, through co-ordinated and deliberative multi-sector collaboration, these threats can be mitigated. In the short term, Sri Lanka must cooperate with local municipalities to encourage more efficient plastic waste management, with long-term goals of investing in biodegradable alternatives and moving toward a gradual fade out of plastic production.


1Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. & Law, K. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances. 3(7).

2Le Guern, C. (2019). Plastic Pollution. Coastal Care. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 11 April 2020].

3Hammer, J., Kraak, M. & Parsons, J. (2012). Plastics in the Marine Environment: The Dark Side of a Modern Gift. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. pp. 1-44. [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 01 February 2020].

4UN Environment. (2020). Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution. This World Environment Day, it’s time for a change. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 04 February 2020]; Wilcox, C., Van Sebille, E. & Hardesty, B. (2015). Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 112(38). pp.11899-11904; Supra note 1.

5Supra note 3.

6Supra note 4.

7GhostNets Australia. (2020). About Ghost Net Art. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 01 February 2020].

8Barnes, D. (2002). Invasions by marine life on plastic debris. Nature. 416(6883). pp.808-809.

9Bauman, B. (2019). Why Plastics Can Be Garbage For The Climate. Yale Climate Connections. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 2020].

10Pradeepkiran, J. (2019). Aquaculture role in global food security with nutritional value: a review. Translational Animal Science. 3(2): 903-910.

11Our Ocean 2016. (2016). Sustainable Fisheries — Our Ocean 2016. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 14 April 2020].

12North, E. & Halden, R. (2013). Plastics and environmental health: the road ahead. Reviews on Environmental Health. 28(1): 1-8.

13Brydson, J. (1999). Plastics Materials. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann. pp.103-104.

14Smith, M., Love, D., Rochman, C. & Neff, R. (2018). Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health. Current Environmental Health Reports. 5(3): 375-386.

15Handunnetti, D. (2019). Microplastics a key factor in Sri Lanka’s plunging fish stocks, survey shows. [Online] Mongabay Environmental News. Available at: [Accessed 01 February 2020].

16Central Bank of Sri Lanka. (2018). Sri Lanka Socio Economic Data 2018. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 2020].

17Supra note 11.

18Socio –Economic and Marketing Research Division: National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency. (2017). Fisheries Industry Outlook- 2017. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 01 February 2020].

19Handunnetti, D. (2019). Microplastic waste fouls up beaches on Sri Lanka’s southern tourism coast. [Online] Mongabay Environmental News. Available at: [Accessed 02 February 2020].

20Menon, R. (2018). Plastic pollution threatens tourism dependent Bali. [Online] Down to Earth. Available at: [Accessed 01 February 2020].

21Supra note 1.

22Ghosh, A. & Savio Lobo, A. (2017). Bay of Bengal: depleted fish stocks and huge dead zone signal tipping point. [Online] The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 01 February 2020].

23Kotelawala, H. (2017). Sri Lanka Death Toll Rises in Garbage Dump Collapse. [Online] The New York Times. Available at:
[Accessed 04 March 2020].

24NewsIn.Asia. (2017). Sri Lanka’s ban on polythene, styrofoam comes into effect. [Online] Available at:[Accessed 04 March 2020].

25Daily FT. (2019). Planet or plastic: is Sri Lanka making the right choices? [Online] Available at: [Accessed 01 February 2020].

26Basel Convention. (2019). Basel Convention Home Page. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 01 February 2020].

27Ministry of Foreign Relations – Sri Lanka. (2019). Sri Lanka Pledges Continued Action on Innovative Solutions for Marine Plastic Pollution Prevention. [Online] Available at:
[Accessed 01 February 2020].

28Ali, S. (2020). Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance Technical Assistance Facility Stakeholders Roundtable Discussion.

29Plastic Cycle. (2020). Plastic Recycling – Sri Lanka: Plastic Cycle. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 03 February 2020].

30BBC News Bengali. (2020).  How is jute polymer bag being made in Bangladesh? [Online] Available at: [Accessed 02 February 2020].

31Sri Lanka Export Development Bank. (2020). Plastic & Plastic Product Industry: Plastic Product Manufacturing In Sri Lanka. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 25 March 2020].

*Charles Cole is a former Research Assistant at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) in Colombo. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.

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