Every year, 8 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic waste en­ters the oceans. What can we do to stop it?

Every year, an es­ti­mated 8 mil­lion met­ric tonnes of plas­tic waste en­ters the oceans.

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Contents - SOFIE LISBY

Why has is come to this and what can we do to stop it? To fathom such quan­ti­ties, As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Jenna Jam­beck paints the fol­low­ing pic­ture: “If we were to stand hand in hand cov­er­ing all of the coast­line in the world, each one of us would have in front of us five gro­cery size bags filled with plas­tic. And that is what is go­ing in every sin­gle year.”

Pro­fes­sor Jam­beck was re­cently in Phuket to present a paper on the pro­duc­tion, use and fate of plas­tic. Part of the Uni­ver­sity of Ge­or­gia Col­lege of En­gi­neer­ing, she is the Di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Cir­cu­lar Ma­te­ri­als Man­age­ment and re­cently took part in a study try­ing to quan­tify the amount of plas­tic en­ter­ing the oceans.

“Most of the ini­tial sci­ence or in­ves­ti­ga­tion into plas­tic in the ocean was sim­ply look­ing out to the ocean and re­port­ing what they were find­ing, but no one re­ally knew how much plas­tic was out there,” says Ms Jam­beck. “What is dif­fer­ent about the stud­ies we did is that we tried to quan­tify how much plas­tic is mak­ing it into the oceans every year, what are some of the po­ten­tial sources and what can we do to mit­i­gate the prob­lem.”

Be­com­ing Part of the Food Web

The find­ings of the study are deemed so im­por­tant that Jam­beck and her col­leagues at the Cen­ter for Cir­cu­lar Ma­te­ri­als Man­age­ment are part of the US State Depart­ment’s In­ter­na­tional In­for­ma­tion Pro­gram whose mis­sion it is to fa­cil­i­tate con­ver­sa­tion with for­eign publics about US pol­icy pri­or­i­ties.

Ac­cord­ing to Ms Jam­beck, the most known im­pact of plas­tic in oceans be­gan from an eco­log­i­cal and wildlife stand­point. This line of re­search gave us im­ages of en­tan­gle­ment, in­di­ges­tion, mal­nu­tri­tion and even death by star­va­tion of an­i­mals that con­sume the plas­tic and die due to a lack of nutri­tion. “The fo­cus then started to shift to­wards the fish that we eat,” ex­plains Ms Jam­beck. “For ex­am­ple, other re­searchers have found plas­tic in the stom­achs of fish sold at mar­kets and we know that some fish that have been ex­posed to plas­tic show liver le­sions, which is a pre­cur­sor to can­cer.”

The prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to Ms Jam­beck, is not just the plas­tic that we can see. A lot of the plas­tic that ends up in the ocean is in the mi­croplas­tic range, i.e. larger pieces of plas­tic that don’t biode­grade but frag­ment into smaller pieces over time, or mi­crofibers that come off of syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als such as fleece cloth­ing.

“These is­sues raise ques­tions about hu­man health,” says Ms Jam­beck. “We don’t know the full im­pact of plas­tic on hu­mans but we know that plas­tic is be­ing con­sumed by the tini­est an­i­mals in our food web all the way up to larger an­i­mals, and those food webs in­clude us.”

What Can We Do?

The re­sponse to these is­sues

in­volve both in­di­vid­u­als, cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments, stresses Ms Jam­beck. “Be­cause pop­u­la­tion den­sity is a huge driver of plas­tic waste, our in­di­vid­ual choices mat­ter,” she notes. “For ex­am­ple, if you use a re­us­able bot­tle, over a year how many plas­tic bot­tles have you saved? Over five years how many have you saved? It doesn’t seem like a lot on a day-to-day ba­sis but those choices over time re­ally mat­ter. And if you and a mil­lion of your neigh­bours make those same choices, it can re­ally have an im­pact.

“Of course, many peo­ple around the world do not have the lux­ury of mak­ing these choices. For ex­am­ple, in many places in Asia eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment has hap­pened so rapidly that proper water man­age­ment hasn’t been able to keep up. Com­monly there is a lack of clean water in­fra­struc­ture and that bot­tle of water may be the only way you can get clean water.

“That’s where in­dus­try can come to the table. In­dus­try and cor­po­ra­tions can help with the shared re­spon­si­bil­ity of man­ag­ing their goods dis­tri­bu­tion and waste cre­ated from it. In fact, Nor­way has one of the strictest ex­tended pro­ducer re­spon­si­bil­ity policies that I have heard of, the PET bev­er­age bot­tle. The gov­ern­ment cre­ates in­cen­tives for com­pa­nies to in­crease the rate of pack­ag­ing re­turns.” Not just a Tech­ni­cal Is­sue

One of the main chal­lenges to waste man­age­ment on a global level is re­gional dif­fer­ences, ac­cord­ing to Ms Jam­beck.

“Waste man­age­ment isn’t just a tech­ni­cal is­sue, it has cul­tural and so­cial is­sues em­bed­ded as well,” she says. “Any ef­fec­tive waste man­age­ment pol­icy there­fore must fit in with the lo­cal cul­ture so that peo­ple will be ac­cept­ing of it. Take for ex­am­ple the in­for­mal waste sec­tor, which is ex­pan­sive in many parts of Asia. This sec­tor is made up of in­de­pen­dent peo­ple who pick through the waste stream, some­times through house-to-house col­lec­tion, some­times through trash cans in pub­lic spa­ces, and some­times even from dumps or land­fills. Their ac­tiv­ity is not well quan­ti­fied and they are not looked upon as con­tribut­ing to so­ci­ety when in fact they are.

“If in your ef­forts to de­velop proper waste man­age­ment sys­tems in those ar­eas you were to ig­nore in­for­mal waste sec­tor, you could put thou­sands of peo­ple out of work, de­pend­ing on what kind of so­lu­tion you em­ploy, or you could ex­ac­er­bate the is­sues these peo­ple are al­ready fac­ing, such as work­ing in poor con­di­tions at best or hor­rific con­di­tions at worst. So, think­ing about so­lu­tions that could still in­cor­po­rate these peo­ple but raise their recog­ni­tion sta­tus and ac­knowl­edge them and their health and safety could be a good so­lu­tion.” Not All Plas­tic is Cre­ated Equal

An­other is­sue in many parts of Asia is a lack of aware­ness. “In places where nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als have been used more re­cently and where plas­tic has only be­come an is­sue in re­cent years, man­ag­ing waste on your prop­erty of­ten meant sweep­ing nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als into a pile and burn­ing them. Once plas­tic be­comes a part of that pile, it’s a prob­lem but there is a lack of aware­ness of the im­pact of open burn­ing of plas­tic,” Jam­beck points out.

Then there is the is­sue of por­tion pack­ag­ing. “High value plas­tic, like bot­tles, is of­ten col­lected, but we see an in­crease in sa­chets and por­tion-size pack­ag­ing such as in­di­vid­ual serv­ings of food or per­sonal care prod­ucts. As peo­ple’s eco­nomic sta­tus rises, they can af­ford to buy these things but they can’t af­ford to buy them in large quan­ti­ties so peo­ple are buy­ing lots of prod­ucts in smaller serv­ing con­tain­ers which ex­ac­er­bates the pack­ag­ing prob­lem. This kind of plas­tic is of such low value that no one wants to col­lect it so it ends up in the en­vi­ron­ment.

“The other thing is that in many places, in­clud­ing South East Asia, there is a lot of or­ganic ma­te­ri­als in the waste stream, such as food waste and green waste. But very few of these coun­tries prac­tice source sep­a­ra­tion so the re­cy­clables get mixed with or­ganic waste that is rot­ting, which makes it hard to get clean and valu­able re­cy­clables out of this mixed waste stream.” If Noth­ing is Done

Ac­cord­ing to Ms Jam­beck and her col­leagues’ re­search, the amount of plas­tic en­ter­ing the oceans each year will dou­ble by 2025 if we con­tinue with busi­ness as usual. With in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion and in­creas­ing plas­tic con­sump­tion, it’s a dire pic­ture.

But Ms Jam­beck is op­ti­mistic. “One thing this prob­lem has go­ing for it is that it is tan­gi­ble,” she says. “Peo­ple can see it, they can see that the is­sue is there once they be­come aware of it. Peo­ple agree that we don’t want plas­tic in the ocean. There are of course dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and so­lu­tions to the prob­lem but ev­ery­one agrees to that.”


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