Cooperation key to plastic pollution problem
Plastic is easy. Grab a coffee? Most often, it comes in a plastic cup. Grocery shopping? Plastic again, usually double-bagged. Takeaway? Plastic box, fork and spoon, and another plastic bag. Our modern lives are absolutely awash in convenience.
So is our marine life. Recently in Mindanao, a dead Cuvier’s beaked whale was found on the beach in Barangay Cadunan with 40 kilograms of plastic in its stomach. Staff at the D’Bone Collector Museum based in Davao City described the find as the worst case of plastic ingestion they had seen in a marine mammal.
It is hardly an isolated case in Southeast Asia. World Wildlife Fund studies show that more than 100,000 marine mammals are killed per year by plastic pollution, which also negatively affects more than 1 million seabirds. The discovery in Barangay Cadunan is only the latest wake-up call in the region, after a pilot whale was found in Thailand and sperm whale discovered in Indonesia, both of which had consumed massive quantities of detritus ranging from plastic bags to flip-flops.
The deaths of these cetaceans grab the headlines, but, in a sense, they are the canary in the coal mine. For marine life generally, plastic often looks like food such as small fish or squid, and hosts quick-growing algae that other species rely upon. Microplastics are contaminating the entire food chain, with serious implications for human health as well.
Plastic pollution is clearly a global phenomenon, but the problem is particularly acute in Southeast Asia. The most recent data show that China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines collectively contribute more than 50 percent of plastic pollution in waterways and oceans worldwide.
Cities in the Philippines have already launched strict environmental policies, with Makati, Quezon, Pasig, Las Piñas, Muntinlupa and Pasay now enforcing laws regarding the use of plastic. House Bill No. 8692, a proposed ban on single-use plastic products, was also filed in the House of Representatives in January.
On the other hand, despite environmental regulations to tackle solid waste, there are illegal and substandard dumps across the country. And many, if not most villages in the country lack proper disposal facilities, leading to failures in waste management.
Curbing single-use plastics is certainly necessary, but there is no silver bullet solution. Plastics, after all, are an essential element of modern life, and a blanket ban is both unrealistic and undesirable. Instead, we need to begin to implement tested, data-driven initiatives that should include and are led by young people who, as we have seen in recent climate-change protests, are often the most committed environmental advocates.
These initiatives must involve environmental, scientific, as well as social solutions. An example is The Plastic Initiative, a project spearheaded by the Unesco Bangkok Office and fully supported throughout the Asia-Pacific region, including Unesco offices in Beijing, Islamabad, Jakarta and New Delhi, and headquarters in Paris.
Launched in Hanoi in March, the project seeks to support sustainable development in waste management through education and behavior change in the Asia-Pacific region. Many countries have promised or have implemented partial solutions, including bans on waste imports and long-term plans tackling single-use plastics. But what has been notably missing are transnational strategies.
The Plastic Initiative intends to provide assistance first to Asean countries to implement solutions, develop current environmental policies to allow countries to control waste management issues in the future, and to improve environmental education in order to raise awareness through the youth. In collaborating with and engaging the support of local communities, Unesco’s network of biosphere reserves in the Asia-Pacific are specifically designed to test new “Science for Sustainability” approaches to manage interactions between communities and ecosystems.
There are 686 reserves in 122 countries worldwide, with 152 in the Asia-Pacific, including Puerto Galera, Palawan and Albay in the Philippines. The reserves span terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems that are divided into core conservation areas, buffer zones used for education and research, and transition areas where sustainable economic activity is allowed.
From this setup, The Plastic Initiative seeks to gather innovative solutions from youth across the region, test projects in the reserves, monitor results and disseminate best practices.
At the launch in Hanoi, waste management and environmental specialists from Cambodia, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam came and gave presentations on waste management issues affecting their countries. While each country faces its own challenges with regard to pollution, the aim is to develop and synchronize national action plans to tackle plastic pollution issues across the region.
Just as pollution in the oceans overlaps national borders, the solution likewise requires a regional response.
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Benno Boer is the chief of natural sciences at Unesco Bangkok.
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