The ocean has become a swirling mass of pellets, water bottles, food packets, fishing wire, and plastic bags, and four countries in Asean are largely to blame for what is termed ‘marine plastic’.
Long assumed to be a vast and boundless entity, the ocean has become a dumping ground for the ever-growing human obsession with plastic. Approximately eight million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year, with a recent study finding that the majority of marine plastic comes from just four Asean countries, and the regions largest trading partner.
According to the findings of the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center (OCMC) for Business and the Environment, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, along with China, are responsible for up to 60 per cent of the plastic entering the ocean.
In Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean, the OCMC says rapid economic growth has generated exploding demand for consumer products in these five countries, which do not yet have the waste-management infrastructure to handle it.
Indonesia Asean’s Largest Contributor to Marine Plastic
Although this means reduced poverty, and improved quality of life in Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, it also increases consumer use of plastic and plastic-intensive goods.
This increase has created huge amounts of waste or ‘plastic leakage’ which, when not disposed of properly, enters groundwater, lakes and rivers and eventually the ocean as marine plastic.
Indonesian environment and forest ministry’s ocean and coastal pollution management director, Heru Waluyo admits Indonesia comes second as the world’s highest contributor of marine plastic. Partly from the country’s rapid development, and partly from a lack of environmental education.
‘With such economic growth people’s consumption rises and they tend to consume numerous products of packaged food, he said. ‘The high consumption is paired with a lack of awareness of the people towards the environment.’
A study led by Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia, found Indonesia generated about 3.2 million tons of mismanaged plastic waste in 2010, about 10 per cent of the world total. The Philippines plastic leakage for the same year accounted for 1.9 million tons, Vietnam 1.8 million and Thailand 1.0 million. Mass production giant China accounted for 8.8 million tons, 27.7 per cent of the world total.
Philippines Worst Asean Plastic Leaker
According to Stemming the Tide, 75 per cent of plastic-leakage comes from uncollected land waste, while the remaining 25 per cent comes from within the waste-management system itself.
In the Philippines, however, the report found the opposite. In the Philippines most of the plastic-leakage happens after trash has already been collected. In order to cut fuel costs private hauler companies unload waste en route to disposal sites, by the side of the road or even directly into waterways.
The other main leakage point is from open dump-sites. These sites, the report claims, are often located near waterways so that when heavy rains come, the waste is washed away leaving the sites with a refreshed capacity to take in more waste.
Although it is easy to see the effects of plastic-leakage washing up on shore or bobbing in the ocean, the real danger is in the plastic we can’t see.
According to Japanese chemist Katsuhiko Saido, plastic does actually decompose with surprising speed and at a much lower temperature than previously thought.
As it does, it releases toxic substances into the seawater, namely bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer. Toxins that may have adverse health effects on humans as well as on flora and fauna.
‘We found that plastic in the ocean actually decomposes as it is exposed to the rain, sun, and other environmental conditions… giving rise to another source of global contamination that will continue into the future”, he said
At the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in 2009 Dr Saido we found that marine plastic ‘actually decomposes as it is exposed to the rain, sun, and other environmental conditions… giving rise to another source of global contamination that will continue into the future
New Measures to Cut Waste
In order to slow the destructive tide of trash polluting our shores, Stemming the Tide suggests several measures for the five focus countries, including expanding and improving garbage collection, and closing leakage points within the garbage collection system.
The report also suggests the use of gasification. A process through which the partial oxidation of plastic waste produces a type of gas that can be used for electricity generation or fuel and would increase the value of plastic and add an incentive to efficient collection. Treating waste through incineration, that is, burning plastic to generate electricity, is seen as particularly viable in Thailand and Vietnam, however the Philippines bans incineration due to air pollution.
Lastly, the report focuses on manually sorting waste for recycling, with a focus on using both high-value and low-value plastic waste. Normally waste pickers only target high-value plastic such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, but low-value plastic can be shredded and pelletized to make industrial fuel.
Education is another key factor to decreasing the dependence on plastic and some countries have already started campaigns to improve public awareness (See: Ban The Bag: Cambodia Plastic Bag Law Approaches Reality) and training the next generation of media to report on the environment accurately.
Last week an event hosted by German NGO Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) in Phnom Penh gave a platform to young Cambodian journalists to present the knowledge they had gained from training in environmental issues conducted by the NGO.
The presentation by sophomore year (second year) journalism students was followed by a panel, Coping with Climate Change and Energy Security: The Role of Media, which focused on the role of the media in accurately communicating the environment message responsible to the greater community.
Such measures remain vital as growth in the global use of plastic is set to increase significantly over the next ten years according to Stemming the Tide, especially in countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines where waste-management systems are only just emerging. Unless measures are taken now to decrease plastic waste by 2025, the report warns, there will be one ton of marine plastic for every three tons of fish in the world’s oceans.
Update: This story was last updated at 11:25 on September 5, 2017:
The feature video was replaced due to the original no longer being available.
Feature video uploaded to YouTube by: Al Jazeera English
- The environmental toll of plastics (Environmental Health News)
- How do we keep the oceans from becoming the world’s plastic trash can? (Eco Business)
- When The Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide (Coastal Care)
- Which Countries Create the Most Ocean Trash? (Wall Street Journal)