Oceans of Plastic Waste: When Humans Make the Waste that Nature Can’t Digest*
* Partially quoted from Charles Moore’s presentation for TED’s Award, 2009: “Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest.”
Toothbrushes, toys, water bottles, shopping bags, cigarette lighter, and even our payment cards are made from plastic. Plastic has become the main item of our daily consumption lifestyle. According to the Indonesian Minister of Industry M.S. Hidayat, each Indonesian uses 10 kilograms of plastic annually. The amount, as considered by the Minister, is very low compared to other ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand that could reach 40 kilograms per person (Antara News, September 11, 2013). However, despite “Indonesian’s low use of plastic”, if we calculated it with the 250 million of Indonesian population, that means Indonesians use 2,5 million tons of plastic that year alone.
Most of the plastic products are used briefly then they become waste. Poor waste management by the local government and businesses plus the ignorant residents in handling waste has contributed to the sea pollution. I have seen people deliberately throwing plastic bags and bottle in the public beaches and rivers. There is more than enough plastic waste polluting Indonesian cities’ rivers that lead to the sea. Whatever polluted our rivers eventually will flow into the ocean. And it happens.
It hit me when scuba diving in Bali, Komodo archipelago, and Bunaken to found plastic waste such as mineral water bottles, plastic shopping bags, and shampoo bottles was floating around in the middle of the ocean, far away from the residential area. Even worse; some of the corals were covered by the plastic bags and the fish ate them.
The problem appears like most of the plastic waste is nonbiodegradable waste. Even if the plastic were produced to be biodegradable, they need specific conditions such as temperature, humidity and specific types of micro-organism. Most plastic waste will be photo-degrading instead of naturally decomposed. That means the plastic will break down into smaller pieces. They retain their characteristics as plastic and endure in the environment for a long time, even after they change their forms into micro-plastic particles.
According to GESAMP, a joint group of experts for marine environmental protection under United Nations, there are two major sources of micro-plastic particles. The first source is the plastic resin pellets used in the plastics manufacturing process or in the cosmetic facial scrubs. They could be found in the ocean nowadays due to accidental spills during the shipping, or they were too small to be filtered at the sewage treatment plants. The second source is the plastic fragments resulting from the disintegration of the plastic litter of our plastic items.
The pellets and the micro-plastic particles are poetically called as “Mermaids’ Tears”. According to Pelletwatch research, the tears, especially the white pellets, can absorb dangerous persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as DDTs, PCBs, HCH and Nonylphenol, despite its small size.
Due to its size, these particles look like fish eggs and plankton. Marine animals often mistake the “mermaids’ tears” for food. Meanwhile, the plastic waste like shopping bags is often mistaken for jelly fish. Endangered turtles in Indonesian’s waters such as the Green sea and Hawksbills sea turtles have become frequent victims for consuming the jelly-fish plastic. Sylvia A. Earle reported in her book, “The World is Blue”, of a dead whale found on the shore in California in 2007 with 181 kilograms of plastic in its stomach. Animals could die from the plastic waste consumption, and even if they survived, they would contaminate the food chains as which in the end we would consume them. The irony of the sea food chain nowadays: humans pollute the ocean, and the ocean returns the pollution to them to consume.
Moreover, the animals are more likely to get entangled in the plastic waste. There are photos on the internet showing this sad condition. From a turtle to a whale and it’s not a tale, as the truth is our ocean and its wildlife is suffering most from our plastic litter in the sea.Taina Uitto, from Canada, takes the plastic issue seriously by not using any plastic products on her daily life. It has been four years that she lived her life without plastic products (except the essentials). She admitted in her blog, Plastic Manners, that at the beginning it was not easy. It’s not easy to find non-plastic tooth brush or computer keyboard in regular shops. But it does not mean they are impossible without chemical elements. As a proverb said, to believe a thing impossible is to make it possible; a tooth brush could be done from natural elements such as bones and stiff animal hairs. Even nowadays there is a computer keyboard made from bamboo.
Uitto’s effort showed us that it is possible to live without plastics or if we are not there yet – to live with fewer plastics. Many actions could be done individually such as: use our own shopping bags for groceries; consume only products with glass or recycled paper packaging; ensure the plastic waste goes to the recycle center; buy in bulk or directly at local butcher and farmers, where you can use your own packaging; and get involve in green-social activities such as beach cleaning. If you are a scuba-diver, you can participate in several ocean cleaning activities that regularly announced in Dive against Debris from Project Aware. The scuba-divers in Indonesia from several islands have been actively organizing the ocean clean-up periodically.
Sylvia A. Earle, once stated, “Just as we have the power to harm the ocean, we have the power to put in place policies and modify our own behavior in ways that would be an insurance policy for the future of the sea, for the creatures there, and for us, protecting special critical areas in the ocean.”. We do have the power to change our plastic dependency as much as we have the power to stop littering in the streets, beaches, rivers and seas.
Thus, let’s use less plastic products and be more responsible in handling of our plastic waste for better and healthy ocean.