The ground floor in plastics pollution
People worldwide celebrate Earth Day every year on April 22. This year's campaign focuses on ending plastic pollution.
Plastic is part of our daily lives, from the cradle to the grave. We use it for our food containers, as part of our clothes and millions of items that we also throw away during our lifetime, especially single-use plastic products like bags, straws and as sticks with cotton swabs.
The trash may end up in landfill sites, but also somehow manages to enter our seas. It is estimated that the mass of plastic-waste leakage into the ocean is about 8 million metric tonnes a year. If the current situation is not controlled, the volume of plastic floating and submerging in the ocean could nearly double to reach 250 million metric tonnes by 2025.
It is a serious situation and considered one of the greatest environmental challenges. Plastic debris can harm marine life and seabirds, as well as contaminate our food safety.
Research found that one in three marine mammals become entangled in marine waste, like unwanted fishing nets. The defragmented plastic waste known as microplastics, about the size of a sesame seed, can be ingested by fish and might end up on our dinner plates.
Research by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that more seabirds eat plastic waste. In 1960, the number of plastic debris found in birds' bellies was less than 5%, but it jumped to 80% in 1980. The birds mistook plastic waste for food. Scientists found plastic bags, bottle caps, synthetic fibres from clothing, and tiny bits of plastics in their stomachs. The research also forecasted that it is likely that 99% of seabirds will consume plastic debris by 2050.
The year 2050 is also when many scientists believe that if our habits of consumption do not change, the total amount of plastic debris in the ocean will outnumber fish when measured by weight.
The top five countries that contribute 55-60% of plastic waste in the ocean are in Asia. It is a shame that Thailand is one of them, replacing Sri Lanka in the previous research from 2010.
According to a report titled Stemming The Tide: Land-Based Strategies For A Plastic-Free Ocean of the Washington-based Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, the top five ocean polluters are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
The research cited the major reason as being the growth of the economies of emerging countries. The people tend to spend more on things they want, like soft drinks, packaged food or goods that soon become trash.
The Pollution Control Department reported that waste production by Thais increases every year. Department statistics show that 23.93 million tonnes of waste were collected nationwide in 2008, and last year the total reached 27.04 million tones, up 13%.
Bangkok is the champion of waste producers, followed by Chon Buri, Nakhon Ratchasima, Samut Prakan and Khon Kaen. Not all the trash can be properly managed. Of 27.04 million tonnes of waste, only 9.5 tonnes, or 36%, is managed, with 5.76 million tonnes or 21% of that trash reused or recycled.
The report offers a set of solutions that if followed by the five countries, will reduce global plastic-waste leakage to the seas by about 45% over the next 10 years.
No, it is not about banning plastic bags, because the policy can be effective only in specific retail channels. And no, it is not about reducing the quantity of plastic in packaging, because that packaging will not be reused or sorted by garbage pickers for recycling, although it may reduce plastic consumption by a few percentage points.
The study has some suggestions for the country's policymakers, including the improvement of waste-collection services and closing leakage points at dump sites, especially those sites located near waterways, and using technology to convert plastic waste into fuel. However, the waste-to-fuel option always leads to serious debates or protests.
We as individuals also can take action.
Some of us may already have reduced the use of plastic bags in our daily lives. And yes, we can do a little bit more by trying to avoid single-use plastic products. We may start with little things like straws.
If we use just one plastic straw a day, and perhaps one-third of Bangkok does the same, that means at least 2.7 million are dumped daily. Many may be blown away and block our drainage systems or end up in the sea.
Take a moment before deciding to use -- or to avoid the use of -- plastic straws. This choice can help end plastic pollution.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.