Plastic bags have been found under the dwindling arctic ice. Inaccessible Island’s beaches are covered in plastic, yet it is 3 000 km’s away from the closest source of plastic waste. Considering that we produce about 300 million tons of plastic per year, the bulk of which is not being reused or recycled, these reports are only going to get more shocking.
The aim of the conference, themed ‘African Lessons to Inspire Local Action’ was to bring together “marine debris researchers, natural resource managers, policy makers, industry representatives and the non-governmental community” to discuss the problems being faced, its causes and suggested solutions.
Hosted by Plastics SA, Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), delivering the opening address was Honourable Deputy Minister for Environmental Affairs Rejoice Mabudafhasi:
“The marine environment has many challenges. Overfishing, acidification, chemical pollution with the added pollution of marine debris, of which the main product is plastic, is compounding the negative effect that humans have on the environment… Africa must not join the rest of the world using the sea as a dumping area for its waste material,” said the Minister, adding that 80% of marine debris has land-based sources through litter and poor waste management. “We always make our laws based on scientific studies and research, so scientists are an important component for us at political level.”
She pledged her Department’s support to develop and implement effective waste management strategies for a cleaner and safer environment, based on the latest scientific evidence. It is this evidence that was the focal point of the summit.
The consensus is that the bulk of the litter in our oceans is comprised of plastics. Professor Peter Ryan, from the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town, highlighted some of the positives and negatives of ‘the material of the 21st century’. “Plastic in itself is not bad” as it is versatile, cheap (although prices are rising), lightweight and has a long lifespan. Simultaneously, “plastics make good pollutants” as they are widely used, predominantly one-use items and easy to disperse. For example, litter found during research at St. Brandon’s Rock, Mauritius, were made in far-off places like Sri Lanka and Germany.
Packaging: the ‘problem child’ of plastics
Land-based sources of litter appear to be more significant than marine based sources.
According to Douw Steyn, “the plastics problem child is packaging.” One-use items are hugely problematic. Examples of ‘design flaws’ are nipple caps on bottles – little caps on drinks like Energade and Powerade – individual sweet wrappers, straws, plastic ear-buds, etc. These items cover vast areas of land and go unnoticed during beach cleanups due to their size.
People’s perceptions are another stumbling block. Ray Chaplin reported encountering locals in small towns who believe that “wind and rain is their service delivery.” Some Solid Waste Management services are saying that it is their job “to clean the bins, not the dirt around the bins.”
Entanglement causes great suffering
Two types of entanglement at sea were identified. Suffering from acute entanglement lasts from minutes or hours to days. Chronic entanglement sees suffering lasting from months to years.
Animals that are entangled suffer from prohibited movement and growth, the inability to feed, severed limbs leading to death or long healing times if they survive, and strangulation.
Ingestion causes stomach blocks. Dr George Hughes showed pictures of a 4mx3m sheet of plastic removed from the stomach of a leatherback turtle. It also causes internal injuries like perforation of the stomach, reduced appetite due to false satiability, leading to weight loss and prolonged starvation and toxicity due to Persistent Organic Pollutants, which are stuck into plastics “to give it its likeable properties.”
Marine pollution comes back to haunt us
Speakers highlighted some of the many impacts that marine pollution has on our lives:
- Tourism is negatively impacted due to messy beaches
- Disables vessels travelling the seas
- Sea rescue missions can be hindered if propellers get blocked
- We consume fish who consume micro-plastics from polluted water
- Danger for rescuers attempting to disentangle large, trapped animals like whales
I felt energised by the passion of the speakers, and by the new knowledge that I had gained, but I also felt saddened by the damage that’s been done and even a little hopeless about what the future holds. If society as a whole were to never produce another ton of waste, how is the earth going to recover from the damage that’s already been done? My spirits were lifted when I saw that the experts came ready to not only discuss the problems, but also the solutions.
Possible solutions identified:
- Incentives for minimizing plastic use – bring your own punnet and get cheaper strawberries in return. This may work as “you hardly see glass bottles lying around because you can get money for it,” according to Prof Peter Ryan.
- Not handing out free plastic bags has had a tremendous impact on reducing litter but is becoming problematic again due to its cheap price. A proposed change is to increase the price so that it makes economic sense to reuse plastic bags.
- Separation of waste at the source, which is households, as recyclables are “only valuable if sorted,” said Douw Steyn.
- Training of waste collectors.
- Establishing of end markets for recycled materials. For example, the ‘tutudesks’ that were handed out at the summit and were made of recycled yoghurt tubs.
Clean-up campaigns currently in place include:
- Clean-up SA Week: 9-14 September
- National Recycle Day: 13 September
- International Coastal Clean-up Day: 21 September
- The Orange River Project
Martin Engelmann of Plastics Europe provided examples of solution-based programs from around the world:
- Raise awareness: ‘Don’t be a litterbug’ campaign (Malaysia) featuring the Gangnam Style anti-litter parody.
- Support research: GESAMP (an advisory body to the UN) on the impacts of micro plastics on the ocean.
- Promote public policy: ‘Zero plastics to landfill by 2020’ (Europe).
- Share best practices to other countries: ‘Vacances Propres’ (France): promoting responsible behavior at holiday destinations and beaches.
- Enhance recycling and energy recovery of plastics: ‘How to Recycle label campaign’
- Steward plastic pellet containment with Operation Clean Sweep, aimed at helping businesses keep resin pellets out of the environment.
The speakers, who have devoted their knowledge, careers and time to making our oceans a better, healthier, safer place for our marine life, and ultimately for us, shared some memorable insights:
- “We need to tackle causes, not just tackle fixing” – Prof Peter Ryan (Department of Zoology, UCT)
- “You can have very good laws, but if your enforcement is weak it won’t succeed” – Gladys Okemwa (UNEP)
- “Plastic is part of life, making things possible. Don’t abuse it, use it wisely” – Douw Steyn (Director of Sustainability, Plastics SA)
- “We eat organisms who eat other organisms, including plastic” – Henk Bouwman (Department of Environmental Sciences, North-West University)
- “The Plastics Industry is part of the solution” – Martin Engelmann (Plastics Europe)
- (From The Untangled Declaration): “In tackling the problem of marine litter we all commit to take action to protect marine animals from needless suffering” – Nick de Souza (World Society for the Protection of Animals)
- “Make a 6-week commitment to consciously think about what you do with your waste” – Ray Chaplin (The Orange River Project)
- “Support where you can, with what schools and communities are doing” – Rodney Leake (Waste Wise)
I was so grateful to have attended this event. The examples were shocking, the research informative, and the commitment inspiring. It left me determined to find ways to cut out one-use items like styrofoam containers, paper towels, straws. Shopping smarter so that I can cut out as much unnecessary packaging as possible. Considering which stores would be open to me using my own containers and who wouldn’t. Can you think of ways in which you can contribute to lessoning the burden of marine debris on our aquatic eco-systems?
By Tanya Wagner