Oceans of Plastic

This is a blog that I’ve been thinking of writing for a while. Indeed, some of our past blogs have briefly mentioned the problems we’ve seen with plastics and waste management in general, but I feel this is a topic that deserves a bit more focus.

We’re all aware of the problems associated with plastics, particularly single-use plastics, and that a large proportion of them end up in our oceans and wreak havoc with the wildlife. We’ve heard of the Great Pacific Gyre and are probably aware that there are similar gyres in all the other oceans of the world. There are also some pretty neat ideas about cleaning it up. The Ocean Cleanup Project has received a particularly large amount of sensationalist press, not least because the guy who came up with the idea and presented it at a TEDx talk was 17 at the time. In fact, the whole idea was spawned from a school project. Things like this have great potential to put a good dent in the amount of plastics that are already in the oceans, but I wonder how many people appreciate how easy it could be to tackle the problem from the other end – where the plastics first go into the environment.

Just twenty countries are responsible for 80% of total plastic waste that ends up in the sea. See the graph below for who they are:

 

Waste estimates from the top 20 countries in 2010 by mismanaged plastic waste (million metric tonnes per year). Data is taken from Jambeck, J. R. et al. (2015) “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Oceans.” Science, vol. 347. No 6223, pp. 768-771.

But it gets better than that! The vast majority of these plastics are carried to the sea via rivers, each of which may pass through several countries. In fact, a whopping 90% of the total global plastic waste that ends up in the sea comes out of just ten rivers, and eight of them are in Asia. This is great news, because it means the solution doesn’t need to be global. All is not lost! We just need to focus efforts on those rivers, which, conveniently, aren’t even all that widely-separated on the planet.

The plastic waste that litters the seas around Indonesia is, quite frankly, disgusting. We can’t run our water-maker in port. We tried, and it sucked up a plastic bag and blew out the gasket on the boost pump (I replaced the pump with an old domestic water pressure pump so we’re back in action now!). We know when we’re approaching a town or village because we literally start sailing through plastic. At around the time that we arrived here and were confronted with this sad situation I happened to glance at Facebook and came across a series of posts written in relation to someone who had thrown some beer bottles overboard from a boat during cup match in Bermuda. The kick-back from the community was huge. That person was shamed, his father was shamed, his friends were shamed and a great deal of anger was generated over this one incident. Rightly so, perhaps, but for me, reading about this incident really impressed upon me just how good we are in the Western world at waste management and how great the general anti-pollution mentality of the populations is. Plastic waste in Bermuda doesn’t last long, because someone will pick it up. My grandfather used to have a nail in the bottom of his walking stick so that he could pick up the odd bit of trash that he encountered on his morning walk. Many times when out in my boat in Bermuda I have picked up a bit of floating plastic that I’ve spotted bobbing around, and most other boaters can say the same. If I did the same thing here, I would never do anything else and the inflow of plastics is so great that my efforts would count for absolutely nothing. My point is that we in the Western world deserve a massive pat on the back for how we manage our waste. It’s not perfect of course, but it’s very, very good.

Another point I’d like to make is that it is not necessarily the fault of the people who live in these places. We were appalled in the islands of Polynesia to see widespread mismanagement of trash and extensive littering. But think about it – how long have the people living in these places had to deal with plastic waste? Perhaps a couple of decades at the most. Prior to that people ate foods that were packaged by Mother Nature. You eat a banana and you leave the skin on the ground. The same goes for coconuts, papaya, breadfruit and whatever else you are eating. There was no such thing as waste management because there never needed to be. How, then, can the populations of these places be expected to miraculously effect a paradigm shift and spontaneously develop effective waste management strategies just because their food now comes wrapped in a different material? Of course they can’t. They never leave their islands. They don’t see how it could be done, they have no-one to teach them otherwise and many don’t have the resources or infrastructure for proper management in the first place.

I read a book recently that contained an account of a government-sponsored beach cleanup day in El Salvador. The government approached the villagers along a stretch of coastline and said “we’d like to clean up your shoreline and we’d like you to help”. The villagers were really keen. They all went off and spent a day collecting ‘trash’. When the government trash truck turned up at the end of the day they were dismayed to discover that the villagers had picked up all the palm fronds, all the dead branches of trees, and left the plastic waste right where it was. They simply didn’t view it as being ‘trash’. The government educated the people and told them that it was the plastic that they wanted, not the palm fronds. The villagers went off again and they transformed the coastline, removing every bit of trash. The government officials were so impressed that they decided to reward the villagers. They sent trucks with food. Unfortunately the food was wrapped in plastic……………

We’ve seen a very similar mentality here in Indonesia. Below is a photo of an idyllic-looking waterfront:

The people clearly take pride in their living spaces. The houses and boats are beautifully-painted. The people are clean, and clothed well. We even saw evidence of trash disposal in the form of no less than three fire pits. But this is a very dry island. They can’t grow crops and they don’t have enough water. When the majority of your food and all of your drinking water is packaged in plastic, and you have 1,700 people living in a close-knit village perched at the base of a mountain and hemmed-in by the sea, you can’t burn it all. If you tried you’d have people getting ill from the fumes. So this is the inevitable result:

We are nearing the end of the dry season now, so this river is very low and the plastics debris nearing its worst. As soon as the monsoon rains start some time in November all of this will be washed into the sea. For me, the thought of that is horrible. For the villagers, though, it must be a huge relief. But the truly shocking thing is that this is Komodo Village, right at the heart of Komodo National Park. It is considered a global conservation priority area due to the unparalleled biodiversity of its terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

 

Even if the countries in this part of the world all had waste management plans on par with those in the Western world it wouldn’t solve the problem. When I talk about plastic packaging you are no doubt thinking of the over-packaged food you buy at your standard Western supermarket. A bag of frozen peas wrapped in plastic. A pre-cooked microwave meal in a plastic tray, covered in plastic film and wrapped in a plastic-coated cardboard container. It’s pretty terrible, but that’s in countries where the producers know that people are, at least to some extent, sensitised to the evils of plastics. What the producers do in Asian countries, where people don’t view the plastics as a problem, or at best see them as a necessary nuisance, is far, far worse. The pictures below were taken back in January when we were in Thailand. This is TYPICAL of packaging not just in Thailand, but all over Asia.

There’s also one more aspect to this. Population. I don’t think most people realise that 60% of the population of the planet lives in Asia. That’s over 4.5 billion consumers all jammed into 30% of the world’s land area. No wonder this is where the heart of the problem is! But it’s also convenient. All of the people whose mentalities regarding plastics and waste need to change are all in the same place.

So, all is not lost. Well done Western world! Now let’s focus on changing the practices of those Asian countries and really make a difference at the source.

5 Responses to Oceans of Plastic

  1. Hi Alex, Sarah,
    Your blogs are always tremendous. I learnt a lot from this missive; I had not realised the problem was so Asia-centric but it is understandable. 4 months ago I was astonished to see single bananas plastic-wrapped in Malaysia.
    I see a future for you articulating this issue on the BBC.
    all the best,
    Chris

  2. A thought comes to mind: that where each river transits a national boundary, a ‘caterpillar weir’ removes most of the upstream country’s plastic trash. At least it would stay on the land that generated it – not the shared oceans.

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