Growing up with the sea and plastic

If you’re a traveler and an ocean-loving environmentalist who would do island hopping in the Philippines, a country known for its pristine white-sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and rich marine ecosystem, you’d soon realize that the trip is not just a vacation but also a chore.

Ironically, the same country that consistently tops the list for having the best island destinations, also ranked 3rd as the top polluter of the ocean last 2010.

I am a Filipino, an environmentalist, a freediver, and I love the ocean. I grew up in a village just a kilometer away from the shore. As a kid, I can clearly remember how I enjoyed the sea every time it is “kati” (low-tide). However, another thing that I can vividly recall is that plastic wastes, the majority of which coming from packagings, have been pestering our seas until this very day.

As a kid, I never truly understood the implications of plastic waste reaching our oceans. Now, as an adult and someone who values both the environment and science, it breaks my heart every single time I’d see plastic at the shorelines or floating on the water. Even when I dive to our ocean’s depths, I see plastic wastes, drifting with the marine life, as if they are part of the ecosystem.

It is for the same reason why every time I would go to the sea, I always bring a bag or a sack in which I’d keep all the plastic wastes I’d pick up from my trips. However, I fully understand that picking up the plastic waste is not the only remedy that could keep the plastic away from our oceans.

Acknowledging the plastic problem

For a very long time, the world has seen the value of plastic. It is cheap, convenient to use, and it is durable. Plastic has been widely used by different sectors of our society and is the go-to material for packaging.

The world has acknowledged how plastic has addressed a lot of our daily needs. However, it is high time that we acknowledge that plastic is also one of the biggest problems we ought to address.

Traditional plastic, from the moment it is made until it hits our landfills or our oceans, poses a lot of risks to our environment and to all living things. Most plastics are generally made from petroleum, a fossil fuel and a contributor to greenhouse gases (GHG) that leads to Climate Change. Usage of plastics has also resulted to health concerns with how additives , such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, leach out of plastics directly to our food, which could potentially disrupt a person’s endocrine system.

Whether plastic wastes are incinerated, end up in our landfill or in our ocean, they continue to create more problems — either by emitting more greenhouse gases, by choking the life out of marine wildlife, or by being broken down further into microplastics.

40 percent of plastic waste that reaches the ocean comes from single-use packaging. And according to The Guardian , “if current trends continue, the amount of plastic waste polluting the oceans will grow to 29m tonnes a year by 2040, the equivalent of 50kg for every meter of coastline in the world.” How can we then solve the plastic problem plaguing our planet?

Solving the ocean plastic problem

Every problem has a solution, and the same is true for the plastic problem. Among so many others, below are few of the steps we can all take to solve the crisis:

1. Give up on plastic packaging and switch to sustainable alternatives – Plastic is no longer the only option we have when it comes to packaging. Alternatives in a form of plant-based compostable materials are one of the fast-emerging solutions in addressing both the need for packaging and resolving the plastic problem. Some are using cassava , a cheap starchy root crop available in Latin-American and tropical countries, to create “plastic” bags that are 100% biodegradable and safe for both humans and animals. Some have resorted to mushrooms to replace styrofoam, which could biodegrade in just 30 days! Of course, these options are still in their infancy stage and are not yet widely available in the market. However, if these options are not available, businesses can always opt to switch from plastic to paper packaging. For instance, a simple business decision to use paper carton as egg containers versus the supposed “neat” transparent plastic, could go a long way. And, who knows? Maybe as I study Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, I’d be able to come up with other alternatives.

2. Legislate and implement effective laws and policies – Environmental issues such as the plastic problem is not just a scientific dilemma, it is also a political one. Legislators would need to create effective policies that ban most plastic by-products (e.g., single-use plastics), empower both public and private sectors to transition and invest in more sustainable solutions, and penalize those who would violate the law. The same legislation can also help sectors, in a form of tax incentives, government grants, or subsidies to organizations and companies that would invest their resources in addressing the plastic problem. Legislations can also help strengthen and support existing environmental laws and waste management infrastructures that are very much needed in addressing the crisis. However, it is equally important that any legislation be supported not just by strict implementation but also by strong political will.

3. Promote circular economy on recycled plastic – The first fully synthetic plastic was created in 1907 and since then, most plastics do not biodegrade. The initially deemed “disposable” materials have been piling up since and they’re here to stay, either in our oceans or landfills. However, by establishing circular economies around plastic packaging wastes, it could lower down the use of “virgin” plastics while at the same time repurposing the used plastic products, to bring them further away from our oceans. Creating a circular economy deviates from the usual “linear make, use, dispose model.” (footnote the research paper). Plastic wastes could be used and repurposed as different essential items, be used for 3d printing, or could even be converted into energy with minimal GHG emissions through the process called pyrolysis.

4. Safeguard the ocean’s entry-points – Plastic wastes do not just come from people living along the coastline. In most parts, the waste largely comes from inner bodies of water such as rivers and streams and of course sewers which are all interconnected. Some companies have developed bubble barriers that prevent plastic from floating to the ocean with minimal to zero disruption to marine wildlife. Ensure that there are local ordinances in place to also protect said bodies of water while, at the same time, exerting the much-needed effort to guarantee that local communities do their part in keeping waste away from the ocean’s entry points.

5. Conduct mass education drive – The first four items can only do so much. The masses need to be educated and empowered to turn the tide against plastic. The public needs to know the implications of using plastic in general, not just to our health but to the health of our planet. At the same time, we need to share with everyone the available sustainable alternatives, the legislations in place, and how to build circular economies out of plastic wastes, to empower them become sentinels of our environment.

An ocean free from plastic

Addressing one of the biggest crises we now face involves a collaborative effort from different and all sectors of our society in sharing the accountability of safeguarding our planet from the harms caused by plastic.

We must protect our home planet and its oceans, and stop treating the same as a huge dumpsite.

I hope that the next generation would be born in this world without the need to be burdened by the problems we now face. Our children, alongside all other species that rely on our planet, deserve better. Quoting from the documentary A Plastic Ocean: “The whole of the ecosystems of the world are based on a healthy ocean. And if that part of the planet becomes dysfunctional, goes wrong, then the whole life of this planet will suffer.”

I dream, too, that the time will come that traveling in the islands of the Philippines becomes truly a vacation for me to enjoy, instead of a chore.

Works Cited

Essay by: Harvey Perello
The University of Arizona

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