Tuesday, July 23

Beating plastic pollution


A beach is seen littered with plastic bottles and other rubbish.

WHILST the 1940s and 1950s saw the mass production of plastics, it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that various forms of plastic were invented. Three inventors were attributed to the creation of plastic. Alexander Parkes, an Englishman created one form of plastic in 1856, followed by American John Wesley Hyatt in 1869, and then Belgian Prof Leo Baekeland (hence bakelite) in 1909.

June 5, 2018 was the 44th year that the United Nations celebrated World Environment Day. This year, environmental representatives from around the world met in New Delhi, India for ‘Beat plastic pollution day’. India was named the worst of the plastic pollution countries in the world followed in hot pursuit by China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

On the very same day, The Borneo Post highlighted the plight of a ‘New Delhi slum drowning in plastic waste’, together in the home news section of the paper with an article entitled ‘Heavy rain, clogged drains factors behind flash flood’. The day before we read a graphic description of the tragic death of a starving pilot whale in Thailand. Its digestive tract was clogged with 80 giant plastic bags, eight of which were full of human sewerage. A week later, a green backed turtle again suffered the same fate off the Thai coastline. On June 6, this newspaper reported, ‘Plastic wasteland: Asia’s pollution-crisis’.

More refreshing and reassuring articles have been reported such as ‘Myanmar enterprise tries to make trash trendy’ and ‘Curtin geology students learn while making tomorrow better’. The former article concerned a Yangon shop named Chuchu (meaning plastic in Burmese), which recycles plastic into souvenir items for sale especially to tourists throughout Myanmar. The latter article concerned 34 staff and students, on a geology field course to Labuan’s coastline, finding time to beach sweep plastic rubbish mostly consisting of discarded drinking bottles. What excellent examples to all of us. In the same paper on the same day, a statement from the Minister of Local Government and Housing implored us to ‘Practise recycling to protect our environment’.

Pollution effects

Most plastic, unless biodegradable, remains on land or in the oceans for hundreds of years. Kuching, not unlike most tropical cities, suffers from frequent very heavy downpours and thus needs its roadside drains to take run off efficiently and swiftly. Alas, people often see these open drains as free garbage receptacles, clogging them up with discarded and unhealthy rubbish. With increased warming, through climate change, these downpours of rain will be even more vicious and frequent. The ever increasing size of Kuching’s urban heat-island will add to this dilemma and the drain clogging scenario will become more compounded. The annual cost of rehabilitating Kuching’s landfill sites together with the contractor’s garbage collection fees is RM250 per tonne.

The Department of Drainage and Irrigation (DID) highlighted the cause of the flash flood on May 20 affecting SJK Chung Hua 5, when 50mm of rain fell in a very short time, as none other than plastic rubbish clogged roadside drains. Some Kuching citizens need to take their personal rubbish disposal more seriously to save other citizens’ public money spent in paying for emergency services.

It hurts me to see so much plastic rubbish to include water bottles, straws, and bags, which are nonchalantly thrown out of moving car windows by parents with their children watching. What an example to young citizens. Common sense and common decency should prevail and the idea of environmental preservation and conservation should not be solely left to school teachers, for examples should be set at home with parental education too.

Staggering global facts

  • Five trillion plastic bags used each year
  • 360 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually
  • 17 million barrels of oil are used annually in plastic production
  • One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute
  • 100,000 marine animals are killed by plastic each year
  • 100 years plus are taken to degrade plastic and thousands of years to decompose polystyrene
  • 90 per cent of bottled water is found to contain certain plastic particles
  • 50 per cent of consumer plastics are single-use
  • 10 per cent of all human-generated waste is plastic

(Source: UN Environment Committee Report 2018)

Dumping grounds

One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute.

A company very recently organised a beach clean-up at Batu Beach, Bintulu highlighting the amount of plastic waste that makes its way into the South China Sea. New reports on ocean measurements have revealed that plastic particles are found all over global waters. Are we surprised? Ocean currents will sweep such detrimental rubbish anytime to anywhere. Remember the sealed glass bottles with written messages inside, which were cast into the sea at one place to be found very many years later by beach combers thousands of kilometres away?

Currently 13 million tonnes of plastic a year reach the oceans and plastic is found in the seas from the North to the South Poles.

Six gigantic whirlpools or gyres swirl around the discarded plastic at points in the oceans where ocean currents converge. So far, the total damage to the world’s marine ecosystems is costing RM52 billion each year. Perhaps, equally as frightening is the fact that it is estimated that 619 million tonnes of plastic will be produced in only 12 years’ time. How much of this will infest our oceans?

2018 UN Environment Meeting

India, the fastest growing economy in the world, with 13 billion people, has vowed to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022. Fifty countries joined the UN’s Clean Seas Campaign against maritime litter.

In a place I once visited, Africa’s biggest slum at Kibeira in Kenya’s capital, the residents there have taken the initiative by clearing plastic and other waste out of a once sprawling lake to return it to its former glory. Where there is the will, there is a way. These are but a few snippets from that revealing report, which can be read fully online.

Microbiology and biotechnology

A few years ago, Japanese researchers identified a bacterium (Ideonella sakaiensis) feeding off a certain type of plastic (polyethylene terephthalate or PET) used to make bottles. Researchers at the University of Portsmouth, UK and the US Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found, by accident in this bacterium, a particular enzyme, which can break down PET plastics even faster. With further development it may be used on an industrial scale to reduce the world’s ever growing mountains of discarded plastic materials.

Only when we all take stock of our personal disposal of single-use plastic bags and the use of cleansers containing minute plastic beads, and insist on receiving biodegradable plastic bags from retail outlets, can we honestly place our hands on our hearts and say that we have done a bit to help the world’s dilemma.

Let’s start the ocean clean up by volunteer groups collecting plastic articles washed ashore on our beaches, dumped at wayside grass verges, in public parks, and in our streets to be blown by the wind into drains.

We cannot rely solely on local government garbage collection agencies to clear up our filth. As adults, we must take the stage and be seen as examples to our children as to cleanliness and indeed godliness.

Old habits die hard as in my case as a headmaster of one school in the UK and another in Sarawak, I was considered as the highest paid litter collector in those environments. It worked, for students cottoned on to never dump litter and always pick up any litter, when passing by, and deposit it in the nearest bin.

For further reading on plastic waste go to www.unenvironment.org.