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  • Raghav Sand

Plastic in Our Oceans

Plastic is one of the major pollutants in the world. Middle-and-lower income countries are being unfairly blamed for the mess, but in reality, every nation is guilty of neglect and inaction. Plastics take years to decompose, and a large chunk of the plastics waste finds its way in our water bodies. Waste from rivers and people living near the coastline accounts for 80% of all the plastic pollution in oceans; the rest comes from fishing nets, ropes and abandoned vessels.

Rich countries produce much more plastic waste per person (0.2 to 0.5 kilograms per person per day) than poorer countries. This compares to 0.01 in India or 0.07 kilograms in the Philippines. Even when we multiply by population (giving us total plastic waste generation), rich countries generate a lot. The UK, for example, generates twice as much plastic waste as the Philippines.

New Research, Newer Findings

Latest research suggests that smaller rivers play a much larger role than previously thought. The top ten emitting rivers contribute a much smaller amount than previously thought: just 18% of plastics compared to 56% and 91% from previous studies. The proximity of populations to the river, distance to the ocean, the slope of the terrain, and types of land use are the most common causes of severe damage being caused to oceans.

Most of the world’s largest emitting rivers are in Asia, with some also in East Africa and the Caribbean. Seven of the top ten rivers are in the Philippines. Two are in India, and one in Malaysia. The Pasig River in the Philippines alone accounts for 6.4% of global river plastics.

Asia: The Undisputed Top Polluter

Seven of the top ten most polluted rivers are in the Philippines. Two are in India, and one in Malaysia. The Pasig River in the Philippines alone accounts for 6.4% of global river plastics. This should also not surprise us given the fact that Asia is the world’s most populous region (home to 60% of the world population); plus, all of the top ten emitting rivers were in Asia.

Image Courtesy: Our World in Data

Determinants of Ocean Plastic Pollution

First, the amount of plastic waste that each country generates in the first place. Second, how this plastic waste is managed. Plastic will only enter rivers and the ocean if it’s poorly managed. In rich countries, nearly all of its plastic waste is incinerated, recycled, or sent to well-managed landfills. It’s not left open to the surrounding environment. Low-to-middle income countries tend to have poorer waste management infrastructure. Waste can be dumped outside of landfills, and landfills that do exist are often open, leaking waste to the surrounding environment. Mismanaged waste in low-to-middle income countries is therefore much higher.

Third – and this is where this recent research improves our understanding – is the probability that this mismanaged plastic waste reaches river networks, and then the ocean. The climate, terrain, land use, and distances within river basins affect the probability that mismanaged plastic waste is emitted to the ocean.

What Next?

Researchers, NGOs and green activists have been earnestly trying to remind and educate the world about the ill-effects of plastic pollution. Substantial damage has already been done, but if we modify our behaviour, we can hope to reduce the severity of a probable catastrophe. If the Government and industry cannot arrive at a consensus on sustainable packaging, then as consumers we can adopt the bottom-up approach. Behavioural change at the micro level, may force the companies to stop putting their head in sand like an ostrich.

Using recycled material and packaging sourced from responsible sources is a good starting point. The biodegradable and recyclable materials used in eco-friendly packaging can take a variety of different forms:

  1. Bioplastics, or plant-based plastics;

  2. Recycled paper and plastics;

  3. Post-consumer products, such as recycled bulk bags.

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