War on Ocean Plastics

The United Nations (UN) Environment has declared ‘war’ on ocean plastics.

According to the UN, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year, harming marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism, and costing at least $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems. Almost 80% of all litter in our oceans is made of plastics!

Pieces of plastic in the ocean will soon outnumber fish…

Credits to: UN Environment

The Problem 1 – Consumerism breeds trash

In the past few years, plastics have been recognised as one of the most pressing issues we face today. The Ocean Conservancy, a US environmental nonprofit, have identified five countries as leading contributors to this crisis. Sadly, all in Asia – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

To date, it was estimated that between 55-60% of global plastic leakage comes from these five emerging markets where economic growth is particularly fast. The report from Ocean Conservancy also noted that >25% of leakage originates outside Asia, so the struggle to reduce plastic-waste leakage into the ocean remains a global concern.

A common challenge for these five countries is the increasing amount of trash produced cannot keep up with proper waste disposal. As a result, much of the trash either abandoned in landfills or carried away by heavy rains.

This is complicated by the fact that rural villagers tend to churn out more plastic waste due to poverty. In this vicious cycle, corporations sell everything cheap and small but with a lot more plastic packaging in poor Asian nations. While it helps the poor to afford their wares, the waste eventually ends up in the oceans.

The Problem 2 – Everything is eating plastics, including us

From the microplastics in cosmetics to the single-use plastic products, there is mounting evidence to show their impacts on marine wildlife, as well as on humans. Apart from the physical problems where plastics strangling marine wildlife, everything else is ingesting plastics – from tiny plankton to fish to birds to humans!

study in 2016 along the eastern coast of Brazil demonstrated and highlighted that important edible fish were ingesting microplastics at rapid rates: 33% by the Brazilian sharpnose shark and 62.5% by the king mackerel. As many as 22% of the marine fish studied had plastic pellets (size 1 to 5 mm) in their stomachs.

Another recent study along the coast of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada reported up to 9,200 particles of microplastics per cubic meter of seawater in the seawater – this is an equivalent to emptying a salt shaker. Researchers say, “Rather shocking numbers.” These plastics come from a wide variety of products: polystyrene beads, hard resin pellets, microbeads, and microfibres.

Credits to: Earth First!

Case study: Singapore

Credits to: The Green Vision

Plastic bags is an ongoing debate in Singapore among all walks of life. One of the arguments: Some insist that plastic bags are a necessity for proper waste disposal, while others have claimed that there are alternative ways to dispose trash without depending on plastic bags.

The important question is: Do we need so many of them? According to the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), Singapore used about three billion plastic bags in 2011!

An opinion piece in Straits Times explains why this is bad for the environment:

  1. Plastic bags are made using non-renewable fossil fuels. The process generates greenhouse gases emission (GHGs), which harms the earth’s atmosphere layer.
  2. Very little plastic is being recycled in Singapore.
  3. Burning of plastics produces ash, and the ash is dumped into our landfill. At the current rate of usage, we are rapidly filling up our limited landfills.
  4. Plastic bags may end up as litter in our waterways and seas, posing threats to local marine wildlife.

Discussions on how to reduce usage of plastic bags (and other plastic products) remain ongoing, but there’s one thing that I think more important than imposing tax: Can the local consumers and shop businesses play a greater role in ‘enforcing themselves’ the use of less plastics?

The Solution(s)

As the world grapples with the hard truths on how plastics are changing our world (for the best and worse), the scientific community is constantly improving our understanding of plastic impacts, as well as generating solutions to the problem. These includes the development of biodegradable organic materials from crabs and sugars-carbon dioxide! Others have discovered micro-organisms that eat plastics found in most disposable water bottles and fungus-eating plastics on a rubbish dump in Pakistan!

It is heartening to see positive work done to curb the plastic problem, but I strongly think that everyone needs to step up in this war against ocean plastics. As individuals, we can help to clean up our oceans. But more importantly, we can first prevent plastics from entering the oceans!

Credits to: Brother International Pte Ltd

In this “Anthropocene Age of Plastics“, perhaps we need to rethink the “3R” concept, and move on to preaching and practising the “5R” concept in reducing environmental impact:

  • REFUSE: Avoid buying, using, or taking materials that is environmentally burdensome, whenever possible
  • REDUCE: Cut down on the usage, whenever possible
  • REUSE: Try to use the waste material without processing
  • REFORM: Try to reuse materials in a different form
  • RECYCLE: Check if the materials can be reused as resources

As my favourite fictitious character, The Lorax, says, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Do you care enough about the plastic oceans issues to make sure you’re not eating plastic seafood?