A whale washing up on a beach in the Philippines with more than 80 pounds of plastic recently is the latest in a growing list of findings that point to the effects of single-use plastics in our oceans. The fact that 45 whales have died in recent years due to plastics reveals the severity of the situation which has reached pandemic level now with no sea dwelling creature safe from its effects. Dolphins, birds and fishes are also turning up dead with their stomachs full of plastic, and in some cases the plastic has calcified.
Studies by UNESCO have shown that more than 100,000 marine mammals are killed each year due to plastic pollution in the oceans. The situation is exacerbated by the inefficient disposal of single use plastics most of which is not recycled and ends up in the oceans. This has created floating islands of plastic in the seas. Currently there are five of these masses with the biggest one three times the size of France.
Majority of these floating mass of plastics are composed of tiny microplastic fibres that do not break down and are so small that they are mistaken for food by fishes and other creatures of the sea. This in turn spells badly for humans when we consume sea food. According to the study ‘Micro plastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health’ (Smith, Madeleine et al) published in 2018, the average mussel contains almost 90 pieces of microplastic. That is a staggering number that needs to be taken more seriously. Already there are those that think that the damage is irreversible. A report titled ‘Fact Sheet: Plastics in the Ocean’ published by ‘EarthDay.org’ in 2018 states that more than 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year. The same study reports finding micro plastic fibres as far as 11km deep in the ocean.
For UAE this should be a wake-up call. With multiple sources citing UAE residents consuming amongst the highest rates of plastic per year globally, it is time to put in place policies and actions from the individual to the community to the national level to reverse this trend. This would mean changing a general belief amongst the private sector that views sustainability and environmental initiatives as good for the world but bad for business.
Globally there are examples where policymaking has worked in swaying public preferences. European Union’s ban on single-use plastic and Canada’s 1% tax on carbon pollution are two such cases which have given results that show that changing behavior of consumers may be a long and gradual process but not an impossible task.
However, what these examples show is a way of forcing the burden of finding a solution on to the consumers without solving the problem. It does not address the issue of production or of disposal. Getting plastics out of the oceans and into a landfill is still not the end of the problem. We are dealing with a substance that lasts forever. Out of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste that was generated in 2018 only 9% had been recycled and 12% had been burned. The remaining 79% still exists in landfills and in the environment.
There is an immediate need to tackle this issue at all levels; individual, community, corporate and state. From my personal experience through Emirates Environmental Group, I believe there is only one way to address this issue.
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