Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Sorry, no apology for preaching today as I get all eco-warrior. I’m afraid we can’t go on like this. Justin Hofman took the above picture. It went viral. As he stated, “a photo I wish didn’t exist.” But it does exist, as a graphic example of the terrible spread of human activity into the oceans. Shot in the once pristine waters off Sumbawa Island, Indonesia; those waters are now debris ladened.
How did we get here? Well, consider this; each year we dump nine million tons of plastic into the oceans. Drink bottles, food boxes, plastic toys and about everything else ends up in the sea. And 40% of it is single-use plastics. Of that single-use stuff, most have a 15-minute working life before its gone. It then hangs around for 100’s of years. More on that later.
Half of all the plastics we’ve made came about in the last 15 years. We first produced the stuff over a century and a half ago. It’s a brilliant material. Versatile, long-lasting, with near universal applications. Plastic has a role in every aspect of human existence from health-care to space flight. Without plastic, we'd compromise our very existence. So let us be clear; plastic is not the problem, it's human behaviour that’s the issue. It’s what we do with plastic once it's finished a useful role.
In 1950 we made 2.3 million tons of plastic. By 2015 that figure rose to 448 million tons. Over 161 million tons of that is packaging material for one-time use.
In 2016, 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold worldwide. That's 65 bottles per person. If placed end to end, this would reach halfway to the sun.
The success of plastic is also its downside. It’s resilient stuff. Some plastics never degrade. Instead, it breaks up into tiny particles that enter the ecosystem. A typical plastic water bottle will last 70 years. If you’ve bought a bottle this week, it will around in some form long after you’ve gone.
Most of the plastic reaches the sea on a journey from streams and rivers, then out through estuaries. The Pearl River estuary, next to Hong Kong, is one of the worst. Each year an estimated 30 thousand tons of plastic floats down from the hinterland. The direct impact is habitat disruption for many creatures. Then you have birds eating the plastic, which clogs their digestive systems. Likewise, fish suffer a similar fate.
It's seen that hermit crabs altered their behaviour to adopt discarded bottle tops as homes. You could argue its a recycling of sorts. Except seeing a crab carrying a ‘Coke’ top on its back is hardly the world we want to leave our kids.
Only a small proportion of the plastic is visible on the surface of the oceans. A fair amount gradually sinks, as the rest remains semi-submerged. The infamous garbage patch of the Pacific is a multilayered beast of churning debris. Less well-known are its Atlantic cousins.
As plastics break-up under the action of waves and sunlight, a new menace arises. Plankton consumes the fine particles. In turn, the plankton carries the plastic through the food chain to us. That plastic we dumped is coming back in our food. And here’s the thing, we don’t know how that impacts our health. Although, studies have shown liver and kidney damage in other animals. This suggests we may suffer the same.
So what’s the answer? What's needed is a broad approach to prevention, habit changes and stringent enforcement. Recycling is at best a partial solution. In the USA only 10% of plastics enter recycling. Globally the figure is 18%. Norway is showing the way with a 97% recycling rate on plastic bottles. That's achieved by incentives for the return of the plastic containers rather than disposal.
Some plastics are easier to recycle than others. PET (polyethylene terephthalate), used in drink bottles and toiletries, is simple to process. Likewise, heavy plastics that typically make garden furniture or crates. Polystyrene, used for coffee cups and lunch boxes, is problematic. It’s best that we reduce its use because recycling is not viable.
It’s possible for us all to make a contribution. First, stop putting stuff down your toilet that didn’t come out of your bum (other than toilet paper). Used cotton buds, makeup wipes and all that other paraphernalia of the bathroom need to go in a bin. That should stop it from reaching the sea.
Forgo soap in a bottle. After all, a bar of soap is just as good, while it produces less waste.
Give up on plastic bags. Hong Kong is making welcome progress in that area. Likewise, plastic straws and bottles. There is no need for plastic straws as paper is a reliable alternative. As regards plastic bottles, it is harder. On a hot day carrying a reusable water bottle is the answer. If you need to rehydrate with an isotonic, then buy the powder form.
Don’t litter. Put discarded material in bins. Anything dropped on the street gets carried by the rain into the sewers and then out to sea. It will then come back. Unbeknown to you it will reappear in your seafood meal. Is that what you want?
Governments have a leading role to play. We need legislation to encourage the use of biodegradable plastics. Let's not forget that poisonous lead got removed from the environment by changes to the law. We need the same for plastics.
As I pointed out in my last blog, we aren’t getting off this planet soon. Thus we need to tidy up our home to sustain the species and protect the broader biosphere. As the only intelligent life-form in the world, we have stewardship of the place.
Data suggests that half of this mismanaged plastic comes from our region. China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam top the list. Hong Kong is also at fault. One estimate has Hong Kong disposing of 5 million plastic bottles a day!
Remember; the problem is not the plastic, the problem is how we handle it. If you do nothing else always think where will this plastic end up as you throw it out.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.