Out Of Sight, In Our Oceans

Earlier this month, off the coast of Southern Thailand, a short-fin pilot whale died after locals found it floating irregularly. Government veterinarians and members of a whale conservancy group attempted to nurse the sick whale back to health, who was vomiting pieces of plastic. However, their efforts were insufficient for it had ingested more than 17 pounds of plastic bags and packaging. During the autopsy, veterinarians removed more than 80 plastic bags from its stomach.

This is only the most recent event serving as a reminder that plastic pollution is incessant and reaching alarming levels. Our environment, particularly the oceans, has experienced unprecedented rapid changes as a result of human activity. A study conducted by the United Kingdom Government Office for Science finds that, without intervention, the amount of plastic in the Earth’s oceans will triple within a decade. Around 140 million tonnes of plastic are currently floating in the oceans and 8 million tonnes enter the water each year. This is equal to one garbage truck dumping plastic in the ocean every minute of every day.

This undoubtedly takes a toll on marine life. The same study by the UK government suggests that 70% of marine litter is non-degradable plastic. It is estimated that plastic kills around 100,000 marine mammals each year, and this number excludes fish, birds, and reptiles. Already, 800 different types of species are impacted by plastic either through ingestion, by traps, or physical harm. Videos of turtles getting straws stuck in their noses, plastic bags defiling corals, and straws found in the guts of fish are often featured in the news. If current rates of plastic dumping persist, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans, by weight. Since we do not take up residence among marine life, it is easy to neglect its condition. This does not, however, exclude us from pollution’s far-reaching effects, thus, it is important to be conscious of what is put into the ocean.

Scientists and researchers conclude that most of the plastic pollution comes from only seven countries in Africa and Asia. Specifically, 10 river systems carry 90% of the plastic that makes its way to the ocean. In Asia, these are the Yangtze, Indus, Yellow, Hai He, Pearl, Amur, and Mekong rivers. In Africa, these are the Nile and Niger rivers. A common pattern that emerges in these locations is that there is a high population inhabiting the surrounding region. Yangtze, in China, is home to almost 500 million people which accounts for more than one third of the Chinese population. These emerging economies seem to also have waste management and disposal systems that are inadequate in keeping up with the volume of consumption. This begs the question: if humans do not inhabit the oceans, why do we feel entitled to unload our trash there and spoil it for both its inhabitants and passersby? Consequently, is there any accountability?

China is the largest global importer of various types of recyclable materials which is fitting since it has a noticeably dominant position in the global market for manufacturing. Due to this, in 2017, China banned imports of ‘foreign garbage’ which includes plastic, textiles, mixed paper, and metal. This allows the country to replace the imported materials with recycled material in its own domestic market. This year, China also ordered 46 cities to sort waste to reach a 35% recycling rate by 2020. Therefore, although the Asian state is the largest producer of plastic pollution, United Nations Environment Program head Erik Solheim, recognizes that “if there is one nation changing at the moment more than anyone else, it’s China…the speed and determination of the government to change is enormous.”

The onus is also on other governments and industries to collect the garbage they outsource to developing countries. In 2016 alone, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste from developed countries including the UK, European Union, United States, and Japan. These countries rely on China to buy their recycled plastic. For example, in 2016, the US exported 1.42 million tonnes of plastic (worth USD495 million) to China.

Some proposed solutions or alternatives for the recycled plastics that would have gone to China is to incinerate it. This would transform the plastic into energy since plastic is a fossil-fuel based material. It would be used to produce chemicals, provide fuels for transportation, and construct food packaging. However, this does not relieve the overarching problem of climate change. The best and most sustainable option is to limit plastic’s functions, for any other proposal would only perpetuate the cycle of global warming.

On December 2017, all 193 member nations of the UN signed a resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in the oceans. Norway initiated this resolution after finding micro plastics in mussels and when a rare species of whale died, stranded on a beach because of the 30 plastic bags in its stomach. This reiterates that while it seems reasonable to dump plastic trash in far-away oceans with unimaginable depths, the logic is not there because the consequences of these uninformed actions will find a way to reach us.

Around the world, there are several countries taking initiative on their own accords. For example, the US, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK have banned microbeads. These microplastics are found in various cosmetic products and pose a threat because they easily pass through water filtration systems. Locally, beach cleanups and “plogging” (an activity combining jogging and picking up litter) have risen in popularity across several cities. The Philippines and Thailand have taken this concept and applied it on a grander scale. The leaders of these countries made the decision to close their most popular beaches and islands for a number of months for the purpose of cleaning up waste that has accumulated from heavy tourist activity. These beach cleanups are effective to pick up garbage that has direct entry into the ocean.

Perhaps it is time to think of plastic pollution – and even broader, climate change – as much of a crisis as trade wars or recessions. As previously noted, it is easy and comfortable to simply ignore the life cycle of plastic, but, “out of sight, out of mind” cannot prevail here. After receiving the short-term convenience that plastic provides, it proceeds to choke marine wildlife and expose them to toxic chemicals. These chemicals then make its way to our food chain and ends up in the food on our plates because plastic does not decay. Instead, it breaks down into tiny particles. Earth is a planet we share with millions of other creatures and it is our responsibility to be mindful of all those who take up residence in it. The cost of fixing plastic pollution at its current state should be a small concern compared to the price future generations would pay once pollution is irreversible.

Sofia Lopez