Challenge for Asean on its golden year
Marking half a century of struggles, victories and memories is a momentous occasion. That is why its symbol is precious and enduring gold.
One is expected to have gained wisdom and strength at 50, and to do something more special and that will make a lasting difference than what has been done in earlier years—perhaps a cause greater than the person or organization.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations turns 50 this year. One of its major challenges at 50 is the plastics pollution in the region’s seas. The problem can be traced to unregulated plastics production, waste management failures, and the prevailing throwaway culture of consumers in five Asean countries.
Studies show that the oceans—from the tropical Pacific to the freezing Arctic—are now filled with 275 million tons of plastic. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics find their way to the oceans, equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastics for every foot of coastline in the world.
Most plastics ultimately sink, damaging life on the seabed. The rest float in open seas, forming garbage patches, or accumulate in closed bays, gulfs and beaches. The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050.
A 2015 study named Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia as some of the biggest sources of plastics pollution in the world’s oceans. Accordingly, the Asean countries, due to their lengthy coastlines and high plastic usage, are some of the primary sources of marine plastics globally.
The adverse impacts of the plastics pollution of the oceans are serious, long-term and widespread.
Plastics kill and injure marine life. Scientists have observed that fatal entanglement in, and ingestion of, marine debris by marine animals has increased by 40 percent in the last decade. For example, 90 percent of seabirds worldwide have ingested plastic, according to a National Academy of Sciences study conducted in 2015. The death of these animals comes from starvation and debilitation, with plastics cutting their stomachs or taking up space, making them feel “full” when in fact they are starving.
Plastic particles transport potentially harmful chemicals and invasive species, such as microbial communities, algae, invertebrates and fish, to nonnative regions, disrupting the ecological balance.
Microbeads, which are made of tiny-size plastics for use in a range of household products, may cause damage to marine life and pose a risk to human consumption.
Plastics also damage tourism as they tend to strand and concentrate along shorelines and sandy beaches, posing a visual affront.
Previously, waste was made up of organic materials that would break down harmlessly. But due to the growing reliance on plastics, especially on single-use plastics, and synthetic fibers, the waste now produced is destined to pollute the oceans indefinitely.
This must stop.
The Asean Summit is the time for governments to commit to acting on the problem. As the current chair, the Philippines has announced that Asean’s 50th founding anniversary “will be an occasion for us to set the tone for the next 50 years.”
Asean governments do not have a specific regulation on single-use plastics production and management of plastics wastes and marine debris. The Philippines and Indonesia have been studying this problem and developing policies and solutions that may inspire regional commitment and action. Philippine Sen. Cynthia Villar has introduced Senate Resolution No. 329, “Directing the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources to Conduct an Inquiry, in Aid of Legislation, on the Measures being Undertaken, if any, to Arrest the Philippines’ Prevalent Plastic Wastes Leakage into the Seas.” On the other hand, Indonesia has committed to a 70-percent reduction in marine waste within eight years.
If Asean can commit to considering a regional ban on single-use plastics and a regional action to address the plastics pollution of the oceans, it will truly be a golden milestone for the association and a great way for it to chart its course for the next 50 years.
Lawyer Zelda Soriano is the legal and political advisor of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
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