Earth's Plastic Pollution

Photo source: nhm.ac.uk

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

Asian nations, no longer, want to be a plastic dumping ground, of rich nations. 

It is because there are innumerable rubbish crates, that arrive, at the ports, of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, from the west. 

But, these south-east Asian nations are now vowing to end it, by freeing their seas and lands, that resemble like a giant, clogged gutter, or a place of a toxic wasteland. It brings back the old adage: We made Plastic. We depend on it. Now, we are drowning in it.

In fact, Rodrigo Duterte, has threatened to suspend diplomatic ties with Canada if the Trudeau government doesn’t take it back. Earlier, the Canadian government did not agree to take back its sixty-nine containers, containing fifteen hundred tonnes of waste that had been expelled to the Philippines, in 2013, and 2014. Duterte has even said that if Canadian government didn’t stop playing petty politics over this issue, he might forcibly dump the Canadian waste, into their waters, by sending it back, where it came from.

Other countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, have now introduced legislation that will prevent foreign waste coming into their ports. In April 2019, Malaysia had declared, after an investigation, which revealed that UK, Australia, United States, and Germany were pouring waste into the country, illegally, by disguising the waste, as kind of economic imports. There were five containers, from Spain, discovered at the Malaysian port, quite recently, which have been sent back. Malaysia’s environment minister, Yeo Bee Lin, has announced that around three thousand tonnes of plastic will be sent back, to the US, Australia, Japan, France, Canada.

Poor and developing countries are also rejecting to take plastic, because of poor waste management systems. Interestingly, as more plastic is dumped in the oceans, green NGOs fear about their role, of promoting bad policies in the past and they have a chance to come under scrutiny, especially after European Union’s Circular Economy Package, which was agreed twelve months ago. But, this will result in a big problem for European countries, because there is no way that Europe can recycle fifty-five per cent, of its plastic, till 2030, no matter how much money pours in. Companies still seem to use primitive and contaminating methods, especially in recycling electronic waste, as toxic air is whipped in the air, extracted from valuable metals, like lead and copper, that can also poison soil, and water.

Around twelve years ago, what happened, in the Italian region of Campania, was that piles of rubbish had led to a catastrophe. As there was no space for the waste, to be dumped in, the countryside became polluted with dioxins, as people started making huge bonfires. To curb the crises, waste was transferred in vast incinerators, in other parts of Europe, and there were talks of expansion of incinerators.

Plastic imports to Malaysia have tripled, since 2016, to eight hundred seventy thousand tonnes. A Greenpeace report has recently found that Malaysia is the new dumping ground for plastic, for more than nineteen countries. China had banned the import of plastic, in 2018, with rising concerns, within the country, for environmental concerns. It was a recipient of seventy per cent of the world’s electronic waste that is recycled on a large scale. The communist country has also accepted paper, metals, including enough rubber, as much equal to ten thousand swimming pools. Lately, it had been found that most of the waste travelled through Hong Kong, due to lax rules. But, China banning plastic imports means that many rich countries, from the west, need to worry now. This action has really changed the whole landscape.

US, at the current moment in time, is the biggest offender, as only nine per cent of its plastic was recycled, while the global rate was less than twenty per cent. British rivers, too, are so polluted with plastics, that almost all British rivers have samples of microplastics. In fact, the plastic waste in Mersey, is choked with the largest accumulation of floating debris, in the north central area of the ocean, than Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that lies between Hawaii and California, notorious for accumulating highest ocean plastic. The Independent had reported that more than four-fifths of the polymers, found by Greenpeace, were polythene, polystyrene, polypropylene, which are used to make products, such as food packaging, milk and water bottles, and carrier bags.

A new controversy also accumulated, when around sixty containers, of plastic, were found in Indonesia, in a port of Riau Island, for around five months, since early 2019. There were some crates of garbage that had travelled from Australia.

There are environmental strategists, who believe this attitude by affected nations, is right because it will make the richer nations, in the west, realise that they should be responsible for their own waste problems, rather than burdening other countries. As of now, it seems that recycling is the optimum solution, as various global companies are looking for green plastics, sourced from cleaner, more sustainable materials. But, it seems, recycling itself, also causes pollution, as every machine is deemed to make some kind of pollution. In the end, recycling, too, is a complicated issue, and more recycling will also not solve the plastic pollution.

The global media, in its attempt for arousing attention, is filled with images showing garbage filled warehouses, containers, trash islands, abandoned factories, landfills, trucks, polluted canals, garbage-filled seas, plastic-laden beaches, or whales, turtles, birds choking on plastics, in the Philippines, in Vietnam, in Thailand, in the Caribbean, in Malaysia, in Bangladesh, in India, and in China.

Places, such as India, are also facing incredible waste management crises, as urban the population is rising. Around sixty-three million of waste is collected, and fifteen thousand metric tones of waste is collected, in every corner of the country.

Historically, plastic was initially called Bakelite, and was invented by a Belgian chemist, Leo Baekeland, in the 1990s. But the first synthetic plastic was created a hundred years ago.

According to an article in ASEAN Today, plastic waste imports grew by one hundred seven one per cent, from 2016 to 2018, to over two million tonnes, signifying an accumulation of over twenty-five per cent of the world’s plastic imports.

Last year, The Conversation reported a breaking news story, where a strange looking two thousand foot, floating ‘pool noodle’, was seen drifting slowly, through central-north Pacific Ocean, through Great Pacific Garbage Patch, containing about five trillion pieces of plastic, driven by wind and currents, and will accumulate plastic along the way, creating a massive environmental problem, impacting our ecosystem, health, and economies.

At this precarious time, Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch organisation, has given a solution, where a passive system is developed, using natural oceanic forces, to catch, and concentrate the plastic, carried by the current. The wind and waves propel this passive system. According to the law of nature, waves, winds and currents move the plastic, in a certain way, and the solution uses these same forces, that will act on Ocean Cleanup’s roaming system. The plastic sits beneath the floater, just above the surface of the water. On their website, the organisation has estimated to clean up fifty per cent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, every five years.

That’s why, in Basel Conference, of the Parties, from April 2019, to May 2019, governments amended the Basel Convention, to include plastic waste, in a legally binding framework, intending to make the trade, more transparent and better regulated. It also vowed to prohibit non-recyclable and contaminated plastic, to be dumped in developing south-east Asian nations, without their consent. The Bangkok Declaration has also been signed, as per inputs from Agence France-Presse (AFP), which, significantly, will aim to reduce ocean debris. There are some existing theories, put forward by experts, where they believe that the amount of plastic will weight more than the amount of fish in the ocean. Each year, around a hundred thousand animals, and seven hundred species, in the sea, are killed by plastic. The situation is really concerning for our planet.

Despite the growing problem, many people want to find alternatives. In a paper titled, ‘A Clean Planet for All,’ released before UN Katowice Climate Change Conference, researchers argued for a carbon-neutral economy, fuelled by biomass, although they were clueless, from where the biomass would come from. Some experts believe it can come, if incineration capacity is increased, to hundred million tonnes, in 2050. To help ease the crises, countries, such as Germany, Norway, and Sweden, currently, have a deposit scheme, and it helps those countries, that recycle over ninety per cent, of their plastic bottles.



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