The amount of plastics manufactured in the first 10 years of this century approached the total produced in the entire last century. The level of non-biodegradable waste has reached a crisis point and Asia is a major culprit. Peter Sherwood reports
Worldwide most plastics (including water bottles, bags and packaging) end up in landfills, incinerated, or in the ocean – they are not recycled. This means we have a serious problem on our hands, impacting the Earth’s ability to support life.
Plastic bags are a major culprit. They photo-degrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller toxic pieces over centuries, contaminating soil and waterways. According to a 2008 report in the Wall Street Journal, the US alone goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. Only 1 to 3% of plastic bags are recycled worldwide.
According to Stemming the Tide, a 2015 study by the Ocean Conservancy, there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic trash in the world’s oceans. Each year, 8 million tons are added to the count. That’s equivalent to one municipal garbage truck pulling up to the beach and dumping its contents – every minute. The alarming new research suggests that in 10 years there could be 1 ton of plastics in our oceans for every 3 tons of fish.
Stemming the Tide reveals that a whopping 60% of the plastic waste found in our oceans comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. While there is plastic pollution throughout the world’s oceans, concentrations of micro-plastics are highest in the five major oceanic garbage dumps. The North Pacific Ocean Gyre, an area the size of Texas that stretches from Tokyo to the US, is thick with plastic rubbish. Annual plastics consumption in Asia is set to increase by 80% to an astonishing 200 million tons by 2025.
Despite the upcoming expansion of two Hong Kong landfills, we will run out of landfill space by the late 2020s. Our city is a small, compact area in which large-scale recycling could be a role model for the world. Instead the government is about to build a 3,000-ton-a-day waste incinerator just off Lantau, a stone’s throw from some of our best beaches, a designated marine reserve and precious country park. Research by local action groups says the Integrated Waste Management Facilities off Shek Kwu Chau will use polluting technology, produce toxic ash, disrupt the marine habitat and destroy the environment.
From computers and cell phones to bicycle helmets and hospital IV bags, plastic has helped society in countless ways. But for the sake of our health and that of the environment, we can no longer afford to treat it as a daily essential.
In 2009 more than 60 scientists contributed to a shocking report, Plastics, the environment and human health, published in a themed issue of Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, a scientific journal. The report reveals that we are exposed to toxic chemicals from plastic multiple times per day through dust, air, water, food and consumer products – and that plastic is harmful to human health. Chemicals absorbed include bisphenol A (BPA), found in polycarbonate bottles and the linings of food and beverage cans. According to the report, high exposure to BPA increases our risk of heart disease and diabetes, and potentially damages the developing brain and reproductive system. Meanwhile, the plastics industry maintains that its products are safe.
Plastic waste, which can survive for thousands of years in water, is (literally) endangering the world’s wildlife, too. More than 180 species have been documented to ingest plastic debris. If the plastic wraps around their necks or intestines, animals, birds and fish suffer an agonising and lingering death. If not, the chemicals concentrated in the plastic kill them anyway. If a poisoned creature is eaten by another, toxic chemicals are transferred to the food chain.
Approximately 1 billion seabirds and mammals die each year after ingesting plastic. According to DB resident Gary Stokes, director for South East Asia at Sea Shepherd Global, plastic pollution is one of the reasons that Hong Kong’s Chinese White Dolphins are an endangered species. “Pollution, coastal development, overfishing and increased boat traffic off the coast of Lantau threatens to wipe out the species entirely, or at best drive them away. Sightings have diminished rapidly in recent years, from an estimated 160 in the early 2000s to just 60 today.”
Plastic pollution on Hong Kong’s beaches is a constant but the issue was brought home to all of us in July 2012, when a ship lost six containers in Hong Kong waters, each one loaded with 1,000 25-kilogramme bags of pre-production plastic pellets. These tiny plastic beads or nurdles (along with full and empty bags) immediately started showing up en masse on the southern coast, mainly along the beaches from Lamma to the eastern side of Lantau and the islands in between.
“The morning after the storm, Sam Pak Wan at DB North Plaza was covered with nurdles – it looked as if it was blanketed in snow – and there were knee-deep piles some 0.5 metres deep,” recalls Tracey Read, a DB resident and founder of Hong Kong eco-charity Plastic Free Seas.
At supermarket checkouts the world over, plastic bags are thrown at customers too lazy or ill-informed to bring their own re-useable bags. In Hong Kong, even fruit and vegetables are plastic-wrapped, making the 50-cent charge for a bag at the checkout a cynical joke. We’re sleepwalking through this urgent issue.
Express concern about people’s inability to move away from plastic, and the stock response is a need for education. My own indignant riposte reflects the endearing American maxim: ‘You can’t fix stupid’. Many societies boast close to 100% literacy and through the internet we have access to more information on the environment than the visible universe has bright lights. More education? How about a thump around the ears with a blunt instrument.
Meanwhile, smart as we are, we cannot come up with a harmless and viable replacement for plastic. Is this inability to do anything constructive due to short-sighted thinking, pig-headed denial or something deeper and dystopian?
Consider this 2013 Huffington Post report: “It takes three times the volume of water to manufacture one bottle of water than it does to fill it, and because of the chemical production of plastics that water is mostly unusable. In the US alone, we use 17 million barrels of oil each year just to produce all of those water bottles. To put it in perspective, that’s enough oil to keep a million cars fuelled for a whole year. The Earth Policy Institute factors the energy used to pump, process, transport and refrigerate our bottled water as over 50 million barrels of oil every year. That’s an insane amount of resources for something that is completely unneeded.”
This is the Information Age, light years away from a Golden Age of Wisdom, but we must address sustainability, making plastics more easily recyclable and increasing recycling availability. We need to regard plastics as raw materials rather than waste. Increasing the availability of biodegradable plastic, which can be made from (renewable) plants, such as corn and soy, is another option.
Plastic marine and land pollution needs to be responded to as a public health issue. As Tracey says, “This could ensure a change of strategy was implemented with more source reduction policies and better waste management practices, rather than end-of-the line clean-up solutions.”
Here’s the bottom line: The answer to reducing the mountains of plastics polluting our environment, starts with me. And with you. We must think before we buy – and before we discard. It’s not complicated: Reduce. Re-use. Recycle.
Fortunately, yes. Plastic disposed in separation bins (found all over DB) is taken to the rubbish sorting station across from the Mui Wo/ Peng Chau Ferry Pier. Before being exported, the plastic is either cleaned and shredded, or sorted and baled. The lower quality plastics are not in demand, however, so reducing the amount you use, especially single-use plastic such as water bottles, bags and take-away coffee cups, is the best solution.