To celebrate World's Oceans Day that falls on June 8th, let us talk about our homework tackling plastic debris in the ocean. It is a long-standing issue, which has nation-states leaders turning their gears to eliminate this issue once and for all. According to IBERDROLA, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia generate most marine plastic debris. The world will feign ignorance that plastic negatively affects the oceanic ecosystem if we do not tackle the plastic debris issue in the sea. Some of the possible impacted ecosystem members are sea turtles, fishes, birds, even coral reefs.
When we think about plastic litter in the ocean, we often blame impulsive littering by irresponsible beach travelers. Or in the case of the countries above, people blame their governments for horrendous waste management systems.
Well – at least that was my assumption for the longest time.
After some research, I realize that is not all to the story. Our communal plastic consumption is just as problematic as inadequate waste management.
As a society, we need to care about the marine plastic debris issue because it affects all three pillars of sustainability: economy, social, and ecological.
Look, I get it. Single-use plastics are easy, cheap and we like using it because it is convenient. Even half of the plastic productions in the world dedicate themselves to producing single-use plastic because of the high market demand. But the reality is those plastic bottles and bags in the ocean can disturb the observation of declining species on top of directly harming the maritime ecosystem.
When we talk about the impact on marine life, it is not limited to the marine ecosystem. For example, think about the fishermen that lose their incomes because they start gaining fewer catches. That is a community-scale economic impact, but what about in the larger context?
According to the United Nations, this issue causes economic impacts to the whole country. Beaches will no longer become an appealing tourism spot. Hence, inviting less and less local and international tourists, who often help increase local income.
Additionally, marine debris interferes with aquafarmers, who gain their income from fish breeding or other oceanic creatures for human consumption. Interference with aquafarming will cause their income to decrease. Naturally, they will lose their ability to help the government maintain a healthy economic balance. In summary, marine plastic debris creates trouble for the fishing industry as a whole.
The Silent Danger of Less Known Plastic Pathways
According to Jambeck et al., collectively, from 192 countries, we yield a total plastic waste of 375 million metric tons in 2010 alone. Out of that number, 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic travel to the sea.
So how does our in-land plastic waste reach the ocean?
The truth is, the plastic clutters in the sea do not all come from macroplastics (plastics that are bigger than five millimeters like plastic bags). Did you know that our plastics reach the ocean through other waterways, microplastics distribution, and debris from fishing activities, too?
1. Debris from Fishing Activities
Some shipping companies used to dump waste into the sea. In the past, the practice made up a large percentage of macroplastic waste in the ocean. Thankfully, nowadays, we are dealing less with deliberate illegal dumping. These days, debris from fisheries mostly comes from accidental fishing or aquaculture equipment loss due to sea accidents. For example, lost fishing gears account for almost 50% of the big plastic waste in North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Another example, most debris on the coast of the United Kingdom comes from recreational fishing. Sadly, even as a minor problem compared to illegal dumping, accidental or voluntarily abandoning fishing gears is not something we can brush aside either.
2. In-land Plastic Waste that Gets Carried Away
The plastic that we throw away on land makes up 80% of plastic debris in the sea. Companies near the Black Sea dump hazardous and solid waste on “nearby lowlands and river valleys.” Although these companies never directly dump their garbage in the ocean, these dangerous scraps make their way to the sea anyway. As the French proverb said, “Follow the river and you will find the sea.”
As if it was not bad enough, our plastic waste can also travel to the sea through rain, floods, wind, and wastewater so long as they are lightweight. How easily plastic travels to the ocean places animals in grave danger, as proven by many recent findings of dead oceanic creatures because they ingest our plastics.
Microplastics are plastic fragments that are smaller than 5 millimeters. It can be a breakdown of macroplastic by waves and wind or small particles in our cosmetics, tires, and synthetic textiles. Surprisingly, these can make their way to the sea as well.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Stock Taking Report on Marine Plastics, these particles are carried to the ocean through wastewater and dissolving precipitation off the road. Even shampoos and toothpaste contain 10% of the weight of microbeads that wash off into the sea. In addition, 99% of products like hairsprays and lipsticks leave land as filler plastics. For this reason, we need companies to act and find alternatives to replace microplastic in our day-to-day products.
As you can see, to tackle the marine plastic debris issue, we do not just need your help to reduce plastic consumption as an individual or the government. Since Asia is the main responsible party for plastic debris in the ocean, we need private sectors to act, too.
I encourage company owners in Southeast Asia, South Korea, China, and Japan to help out! Companies can share their Good Practices to manage waste or reduce plastic usage at Regional Knowledge Center for Marine Plastic Debris for ASEAN +3 Countries. Trading information is the best way to learn to gain profit while aid creating a more sustainable world. Additionally, since companies leave their contact information on the site, you can make new connections with fellow plastic waste combatants! Not a bad deal, right?