If you’ve ever spent time in the water with a sea turtle, it’s a magical experience. They are one of the most majestic and elegant sea creatures and if you are lucky to spend a few minutes with one, a feeling of immense peace fills you. Unfortunately, all seven species of marine turtle have been documented to carry plastics inside or around their bodies, and, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, an overwhelming 61 per cent of green turtles have ingested some form of marine debris, including plastic bags.
A comprehensive study carried out by a team from the University of Plymouth estimates that nearly 700 marine species are threatened by man-made plastic debris on a daily basis, including strangled dolphins, starved albatrosses, maimed seals, and whales that have ingested plastic bags.
Here’s an interesting fact: There is currently 150,000,000,000 kg of plastic waste in our oceans. If all that plastic washed up on shore, there would be five plastic bags on every 30cm of coastline! Amazingly, however, only 1% of the plastic waste in the oceans remains on the surface, floating around in the uppermost two meters of water where many of the charming marine creatures mentioned above live. Yet, that 1% is enough for a whole bunch of it to create its own new “continents” that scientists estimate are somewhere between twice as large as France (or Thailand) and twice as large Australia.
You might think that would make it relatively easy to clean up this 1%—just drag a big net through it, right?—but the great oceanic garbage patches are not like islands that you can walk on top of: these patches are made of tiny, even microscopic, bits of plastics that are formed as the sun breaks larger plastic items into smaller and smaller pieces over a period of 450 years. In reality, these regions of the ocean are a very dense cloudy soup of microplastic.
The other 99% of oceanic plastic is also breaking up into microplastic and, as far as we can tell, diffusing into the deeper realms of the ocean, being eaten by animals and/or incorporated into the bodies of tiny animals called zooplankton that play a fundamental role in the ocean food chain.
Down below, this microplastic waste is mingling with marine life. All those tiny pieces of plastics (which are made of petrochemicals and other components suspected to be harmful for human health) have the capacity to absorb other persistent and toxic substances that we also dump into the ocean. These plastics are then incorporated into marine fishes’ bodies: fishes that we eat with yet unknown consequences to our health, not to mention the health of our children and grandchildren who will eat a lifetime’s worth of microplastic particles. That’s one reason California has banned the use of microbeads, beginning in 2020, in facial cleansers, hand sanitizers, and the like.
World plastic production has risen from approximately 1,900 kg in 1950 to 326,000,000,000 kg in 2013: while some estimates are less conservative, recent studies show that roughly eight million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year, in addition to the 150 million tonnes estimated to be there already. Left unchecked, by 2025 there could be 250 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean: one kg of plastic for every three kg of fish, according to a recent report from the Ocean Conservancy.
Changing attitudes and changing laws
Whether it’s more effective to first try changing behaviors than changing laws seems to be a chicken and egg debate. In most scenarios, it seems that some kind of punishment has been the most effective way to make us more responsible but such laws are usually not passed unless there is public pressure to do so. Either way, do we really need to make plastic bags and other items more expensive or even illegal to reduce the input of plastic litter into the ocean?
Common sense tells us that a combination of reducing personal usage of plastic, effectively picking up litter, implementing better recycling strategies, and developing increased waste management infrastructure should be enough, but reality shows a very different outlook. The cornerstone of the issue should be education, which, by itself, has failed on a massive scale. How can citizens, governments and industry be convinced that they should care? How do we change the mindset?
Ireland was the first nation to mandate a surcharge on plastic bags, implementing a 15 Euro-cents per bag “tax” (equivalent to 6 baht) on consumers who wished to use plastic bags in 2002. Within weeks, per capita bag usage dropped from an estimated 328 bags per year to 21 bags per person per year: a 94% decrease!
Korea is an outstanding example on how waste reduction and recycling enforcement policies, along with increasing public awareness, can lead both consumers and producers to take responsibility for their waste. Responsible citizens in Korea are expected to know how to recycle a wide range of trash, from biodegradable waste or PET bottles to batteries and glass. If you throw a PET bottle in your “regular garbage” in Korea, your garbage might not be picked up next time and, most likely, you will have an agitated conversation with your building maintenance staff. Korean shops also must charge customers for each plastic shopping bag they use, an option many decline, bringing their own cloth bags to shop for groceries.
In Hawaii, the changes are rooted in the notion of malama aina, love of the land. The people of Hawaii spend a lot of time on the coast and in the water and want to preserve its beauty. There are even colorful dolphins and turtles painted next to storm drains to remind people that everything they litter on the streets ends up in the ocean. In Hawaii, it’s long been the fashion to prefer BYO grocery bags and in July of this year the people of Hawaii succeeded in pressuring their government to outlaw single use plastic bags, penalizing business that offer plastic bags with a fine ranging from $100 to $1000 US dollars. A loophole that has allowed thicker plastic bags to be offered by shops including Tamura’s, a popular local retailer, has been met with social media scorn.
Closer to home, the island of Boracay hopes to preserve the beauty of a valuable economic asset: one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Philippines. Boracay has decided to outlaw not only plastic bags but also styrofoam packaging, the local government stating that they will encourage the use of “alternate packaging materials such as woven bags of bayong, cloth bags or katsa, paper bags and other similar materials such as banana and taro leaves.” Visitors and vacationers will be encouraged to "Bring Your Own Bag," and businesses cannot sell or provide plastic or styrofoam disposable packaging.
A surprising country to take things to the most extreme level, Rwanda has outlawed all plastic bags from the entire country. Visitors (who must surrender any plastic bags during a search of their luggage at airport customs!) report an undeniably noticeable difference between the litter-strewn bus stations, roadsides, and countrysides of many African nations. The country is now considering a ban on other types of plastic and even the prospect of becoming the world's first plastic-free nation!
An inconvenient truth about our addiction to convenience
Thailand is currently one of the top producers, consumers, and polluters of plastic in the world. In fact, Thailand and the five countries ranked above it are responsible for 60% of all the plastic polluting our oceans. According to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA), Bangkok alone uses around 600,000 plastic bags every day. Less conservative estimates put the number at 5 to 10 bags per person per day, translating to 200 million plastic bags per day nationwide. Using the BMAs projections, Bangkok will produce more than 5,000 tonnes (that’s 5 million kg) of plastic bag waste every day in 2017. That’s literally millions of millions of plastic bags that end up blowing across the countryside, littering our land, polluting our waters, washing up on our beaches, and ending up on the oceanic food chain.
In Phuket, there are so many initiatives to promote beach clean up events, but these efforts during the monsoon season are extremely frustrating. At a clean up event in Kamala Beach—around 50 people attended—we collected around 15 kg of trash. The next morning, while waiting for the diving boat, one of my coworkers said, “I thought you cleaned up the beach yesterday.” After I said yes, he asked, “And how is it possible that the beach is still so dirty?” The answer is that there is just so much trash that citizens’ efforts help a little but it doesn’t make a big difference.
The truth is that, in Phuket, relatively few locals take care of their environment and you can see that everywhere you go. But tourists aren’t without blame either. At the diving center where I work, I have to chase people to make them put a plastic bag or a bottle in the proper recycling bin, and all because they are too lazy to walk 30 meters to the proper bin.
If we want change people’s behavior we have to make things easier for them: for starters, more recycling bins and clear information about how to separate different waste. But the main problem is that too many of us are either ignorant to the severity of the problem or simply don’t care enough to say no whenever plastic is handed to us: yesterday I accepted every plastic bag I was offered and collected 12 bags!
Fortunately, there are some actions that indicate that the tide may be turning. In August 2015, a campaign was launched to cut down on the use of plastic bags; the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion enlisted 15 major supermarket chains to withhold the distribution of plastic bags to consumers on the 15th of each month. This one-day “ban” resulted in a reduction in the use of 1.8 million plastic bags. Henceforth, the 30th of each month would be no-bag days. Thammasat University, Rangsit Campus, has employed a similar approach, prohibiting all 7-11s on campus from giving away free plastic bags.
According to the National News Bureau, each Thai consumes an average of eight plastic bags per day. That's over 240 plastic bags per month that could be saved by each person if they carried their own reusable bags. This action, if adopted as successfully as Ireland’s policy, hardly requires a major lifestyle change, and it would save more than 5,000 tonnes of plastic bag waste EVERY DAY, according to the Department of Pollution Control. Out of sight, out of mind does not apply to Thailand, plastics are everywhere, so think of how much nicer our beaches would look if we are able to embrace similar policies.
Ultimately, solutions to reduce the input of plastics into the ocean start in land and are so easy to implement (put the freaking bottle in a recycling place, refuse plastic bags in shops, and pressure your government to improve waste management infrastructure). Many of the solutions only require behavioral changes and we should recognize that with little effort we can prevent a problem with consequences of an unknown scale.
Of course, if you’re still not convinced, maybe you’ll agree with comedian George Carlin, who famously stated:
The earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allows us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it, needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question, “Why are we here?” “Plastic, assholes.”
Lead image credit: Citizen Dog (2004) (Film still)