UN sec-gen warns of more plastics than fish in ocean by 2050

KUALA LUMPUR: As the biggest seafood consumer in Southeast Asia, it is no question that Malaysians love their seafood.

But what would they say if they found out that by 2050, all seafood would be contaminated with plastics — some of which cannot even be removed before consumption? The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that there would be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050.

At the moment, there are over 170 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean and some of it are already being consumed by the fish we eat.

There have been many documented cases of marine animals dying due to consuming or being entangled in plastic waste. Even if they do not die from it, it can still become lodged in their system.

Although large pieces of plastics can be removed from bigger fish when preparing it for consumption, the bigger concern is from the microplastics being consumed by smaller fish and shellfish, which can become embedded in their flesh, undetected.

Microplastics

Microplastics are particles less than 5mm in size that broke down from larger plastic pieces that have entered the oceans.

Non-biodegradable plastics can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

These plastics will disintegrate slowly over time but will not completely disappear.

Instead, the tiny pieces will linger around the ocean for centuries, threatening marine life and sullying ocean ecosystems.

Microplastics include broken-down plastic waste, synthetic fibres and the microbeads found in products like the facial wash.

Marine life can mistake them for food while humans can consume them through seafood, tap water and other foods such as sugar.

The risk to humans have yet to be established but some plastics have been known to leach toxins.

So there are concerns that when microplastics accumulate in the body, they could cause adverse health effects.

There is also concern that the tiniest particle could be small enough to even enter the bloodstream.

Although many generally do not care what goes into their food, there is a need to pay attention to this because such a threat to our diet source will not only affect individual health but become a burden to the public health system as well.

Single-use plastics

Plastic was considered a miracle material when it was first invented in 1907 but today, 40 per cent of plastics are made just for a short period of use before it is discarded.

Called single-use plastics, these disposable plastics are only used once — and sometimes just for a few minutes — before being thrown away or recycled.

Think of plastic straws, mineral water bottles and food or product packaging.

The mass production of plastics started in the 1950s.

According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, some 8.3 billion tonnes of products have been produced since, 6.3 billion of which became waste.

Sadly, only nine per cent of the plastic waste has been recycled.

The rest are still littering the environment, landfills and yes, the oceans.

The 2015 research led by University of Georgia environmental engineering professor Jenna Jambeck also revealed that most of the plastic that ended up in the oceans were not thrown off ships but were instead dumped carelessly on land and rivers, mostly in Asia.

These plastic waste then become blown or washed into the sea.

The same team of scientists also revealed Malaysia to be the eighth worst offender worldwide for plastic waste.

The statistic, divulged in the journal Science in 2015, estimated that Malaysia produced almost one million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste (waste not recycled or properly disposed of) in 2010.

It also named China as the country most responsible country for plastic waste in the ocean, followed by Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Jambeck is internationally recognised for her research on plastic waste in the ocean and the study conducted by her team of scientists is the first global analysis of the production, use and fate of all plastics ever
made.

Burning is also not a solution to the burgeoning volume of plastic waste.

Plastic incineration can release dangerous gases and substances such as heavy metals, toxins and chemical compounds
that take a very long time to biodegrade, thus lingering in the environment and posing health hazards.

In addition to that, they can also cause climate pollution and ultimately affect marine life.

What can we do?

There are a number of ways to reduce plastic usage and trash but it involves a change in the way we do things.

For a start, get a glass or stainless steel reusable bottle.

Both materials have been proven to be safer than plastic and are infinitely recyclable.

Market research company Euromonitor International revealed that one million plastic bottles are bought every minute, so using a reusable bottle can have a huge impact in the reduction of plastic waste.

As packaging is a major source of single-use plastic, bring your own containers and bags when shopping.

You can also bring your own utensils and plate to restaurants that serve disposable tableware.

This may feel awkward at first, but it is a great conversation starter and helpful in raising public awareness.

Bringing home-cooked meals in reusable containers to school, work and during travel is also another great way to greatly reduce plastic use.

Corporate companies are also jumping onto the bandwagon with coffeehouse chain Starbucks eliminating plastic straw use by 2020.

Countries like Kenya, England, Australia, New York and Indonesia, meanwhile, have banned or taxed the use of single-use plastic bags.

Kenya is going a step further by imposing a fine of USD38,000 (about RM155,000) or a four-year jail term for those caught in violation of the ban.

Ridding plastic waste is a gargantuan task that will require the collective effort of individuals, organisations and governments alike but it is one that we can no longer put off. — Bernama

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