November 14, 2016

Curing the world’s oceans from the scourge of plastic pollution

Curing the world’s oceans from the scourge of plastic pollution

The planet's oceans are drowning in plastic waste. Photo Credit: GLOBE-Net

As officials in Malaysia’s Penang province face criticism for the apparent failure of their “no plastic bag” policy, campaigners are urging the state to ban plastic bags from supermarkets altogether and replace them with recycled paper or boxes. In this sense, Penang is a microcosm of the region-wide battle against the mounting piles of plastic littering city streets, spoiling the countryside, and most worryingly of all, amassing into enormous floating islands of thrash in the oceans with deadly consequences for marine life, coastal cities and tourism.

The fact that councilors in Penang are having to face up to the fact that the 20 sen charge they placed on supermarket plastic bags seven years ago has not defeated the scourge of plastic speaks to what a wicked problem this is and one that continues to grow, threatening to overwhelm us despite our best efforts to stop it.

Sadly, much of the plastic we throw away and isn’t recycled or sent to landfills ends up in the world’s oceans. Globally, some eight million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the sea every year, about one percent of which is composed of microplastics – pieces of plastic small enough to be ingested by fish. Larger items like plastic bags have been found blocking the blowholes and breathing passages of dolphins and whales; bottle caps, cigarette lighters and sundry plastics have been found in the stomachs of dead sea birds; plastic straws and six-pack rings have caused painful deaths for an unknown number of sea turtles, seals and other marine wildlife.

Upon entering the ocean in the Asia Pacific, both microplastics and bigger fragments travel the currents until they come to a “dead end” in the form of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Because most of the plastic that ends up there is microscopic and floats below the surface it is not possible to use satellite imagery to determine its size, but its mass has been estimated at twice the size of the continental United States.  This swirling vortex of refuse blocks any sunlight from reaching the water beneath, which in turn prevents plankton from receiving the sunlight they need for photosynthesis. No photosynthesis means the water becomes starved of oxygen resulting in dead zones: vast oceanic deserts barren of marine life.

The trash that ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from many different parts of the world, transported by ocean currents, which goes to show how futile a plastic bag ban in one country is unless it is part of a broader international effort. This is a lesson that Asian countries are learning the hard way, as their coastal communities are finding each other’s marine debris washing up on their beaches.

For example, in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture 80 percent of the rubbish on its beaches originates in China, which is the world’s largest producer of such marine debris accounting for over 27 percent of the world’s total. Further to the north, the Sea of Japan is subjected to a choking stream of plastics floating from South Korea to Japan’s western coastline. A recent documentary, Washed Ashore graphically portrays the plight wrecking what used to be pristine sandy beaches.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the world’s second largest source of ocean plastic is also to be found in this region: Indonesia. As in Malaysia, the Indonesian government is looking to introduce a plastic bag charge and is currently trialing the project in a number of districts and regions. In another sign of its strengthening resolve to face up to the challenge of plastic pollution, the Indonesian government, working in coordination with the World Bank, is conducting a study in 15 urban centers with a view to understanding where the plastic waste is being generated and how it is ending up on the ocean. Alongside Malaysia’s new marine pollution legislation, which seeks to improve facilities at oil installations and prevent spills, there are encouraging signs that governments in the region finally recognizing the marine environment as a something worth protecting.

In order for this momentum to be continued, more efforts need to be made to get citizens to recognize this also. To that end it is important that the hard work of the many NGOs dedicated to prioritizing this issue is supported and amplified, if it is to catch the attention of policymakers. In Europe these efforts have begun to bear fruit with a recent survey of Europeans finding that the environment topped the list of respondents concerns. This kind of public concern pushes policymakers to act, but it also pushes producers to seek out more environmentally friendly ways of making their products, lest they find themselves tarnished polluters.

This strategy of sustained public pressure on governments and producers to work harder to limit the circulation of plastic in our society will be all the more important as the plastic industry begins to pushback against a movement that threatens its bottom line.

So long as we continue to produce mass amounts of plastic the environment, and our oceans in particular will continue to suffer, that’s why we must continue to invest in alternative materials, and continue to support all-out bans on the use of plastic bags.

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