Plastic in the Ocean

Ocean plastic a ‘planetary crisis’

booms the UN.

Life in the seas risks irreparable damage from a rising tide of plastic waste, the UN oceans chief has warned.

Lisa Svensson said governments, firms and individual people must act far more quickly to halt plastic pollution.

I saw Lisa Svensson on TV this morning and she’s a rather attractive blonde-haired Scandinavian. Imagine how surprised I was to find a wealthy, middle-class white woman complaining about environmental degradation in Africa and not, say, an African.

Ms Svensson had just been saddened by a Kenyan turtle hospital which treats animals that have ingested waste plastic.

She saw a juvenile turtle named Kai, brought in by fishermen a month ago because she was floating on the sea surface.

Plastic waste was immediately suspected, because if turtles have eaten too much plastic it bloats their bellies and they can’t control their buoyancy.

Kai was given laxatives for two weeks to clear out her system, and Ms Svensson witnessed an emotional moment as Kai was carried back to the sea to complete her recovery.

I’ve run out of handkerchiefs already. But enough about Kai the turtle and his laxatives: where’s all this plastic coming from?

“It’s a very happy moment,” she said. “But sadly we can’t be sure that Kai won’t be back again if she eats more plastic.

“It’s heart-breaking, but it’s reality. We just have to do much more to make sure the plastics don’t get into the sea in the first place.”

Fuck me, I said enough about Kai! Okay, here we go:

There’s waste from down the coast as far as Tanzania – but also from Madagascar, the Comoros Islands, Thailand, Indonesia and even a bottle from far-away Japan.

Those famously littering Japanese, eh? Has anyone actually done any concrete research into where the bulk of this plastic is actually coming from? Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the reports on plastic in the ocean steer well clear of actually identifying the source, but this one tells us (page 7):

Less than 20 percent of leakage originates from ocean-based sources like fisheries and fishing vessels. This means over 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources; once plastic is discarded, it is not well managed, and thus leaks into the ocean. Over half of land-based plastic-waste leakage originates in just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, referred to in this report as the five focus countries for action.

I’d also hazard a guess that most of the plastic littering the beaches in Africa and giving poor Kai indigestion was discarded locally, either from the land or ships anchored offshore. Here’s a photo I took on a beach in Lagos:

How much of that lot do you think bobbed over from Japan or started life as a carrier bag in a supermarket in Paris? But of course, it is the behaviour of westerners that is the problem:

Tisha Brown from Greenpeace told BBC News: “We welcome that they are looking at a stronger statement, but with billions of tonnes of plastic waste entering the oceans we need much more urgent action.

“We need manufacturers to take responsibility for their products – and we need to look at our consumption patterns that are driving all this.”

“Our” consumption patterns are causing Asians to chuck plastic into rivers. uh-huh.

Finally the article gets around to the underlying problem:

Indonesia – the world’s second biggest plastics polluter after China – has pledged to reduce plastic waste into the ocean 75% by 2025, but some observers doubt legal rules are strong enough to make this happen.

What do they propose as an alternative? Military intervention?

Plastic waste is also on the agenda for this month’s China Council – an influential high level dialogue in which world experts advise China’s leaders on environmental issues.

The Chinese being famously receptive to foreign “experts” telling them what to do.

Kenya itself has banned single-use plastic bags, along with Rwanda, Tanzania and – soon- Sri Lanka. Bangladesh has had controls for many years, especially to stop bags clogging up drains and causing floods.

Ah yes, I wrote about the Kenyan ban on plastic bags here.

But bags are just one part of the problem – there are so many other types of plastic flowing through waterways.

“The UN process is slow,” Ms Svensson admitted. “It could take 10 years to get a UN treaty agreed on plastic litter and a further two years to get it implemented.

“We have to progress through the UN because this is a truly global problem – but we can’t wait that long.

We have five Asian countries chucking plastic into the sea, but we have to go through the laborious, ten-year process of getting a UN treaty because it’s a global problem?

“We need to get much stronger actions from civil society, putting pressure on business to change – they can switch their supply chains very fast. And we need more individual governments to take urgent action too.”

What this means, of course, is making goods and services more expensive and more difficult to obtain for reasonably conscientious and responsible westerners while ignoring those who are actually chucking the plastic in the sea. Oh, and providing cushy 10-year assignments attending UN briefings for a handful of wealthy, middle-class people like Lisa Svensson.

Ms Svensson said the ocean was facing multiple assault from over-fishing; pollution from chemicals, sewage and agriculture; development in coastal areas; climate change; ocean acidification; and over-exploitation of coral reefs.

“This is a planetary emergency,” she said. “I sense there is a momentum now about the need to act. We just have to be much faster.”

As we left Watamu after Kai’s joyous release, I turned back for one last glance at the Indian Ocean. A small boy tossed a plastic bottle over his shoulder into the sparkling water.

I have a feeling this article was written in the wrong language, and published in the wrong place. I get that plastic in the ocean is a serious problem, but why are they always nagging us about it?

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19 thoughts on “Plastic in the Ocean

  1. “I’ve run out of handkerchiefs already. But enough about Kai the turtle and his laxatives”

    Quite possibly the finest line you have ever written, sir. I will treasure it.

    (Also, in passing as it were, the woman didn’t see a boy throw a plastic bottle into the sparkling water. I call fake news because in the pantheon of the hack reporter, such a closing line is like gold: it delivers a sharp belly blow following the spectacular uppercut to the sensibilities. Would-be journalists: learn this cute trick for garnering extra praise.)

  2. She would get a little more attention and sympathy for her cause from me if she focused on human suffering and say human juveniles and say the unfortunate ones that are swallowing shrapnel around the place.

    In other related news:

    Why climate change is creating a new generation of child brides

  3. Correct.

    It’s as if these people have never noticed the difference between our, pretty much, plastics-free countryside in the West and the midden that is a large proportion of the developing world.

    Travelling through places like Cambodia and Zanzibar, you would believe that plastic bags were the staple crop, because they cover enough of the countryside.

  4. I have been to beaches in Colombia and found plastic bottles there which had packaging only written in English and French – I never seen anything for sale there without Spanish writing. I think some western countries are responsible (although of course in this case, I would guess it was Canadians).

  5. I have been to beaches in Colombia and found plastic bottles there which had packaging only written in English and French

    Caribbean Islands would be my guess. Unless it’s White Lightning bottles, in which case scally Mancs have been chucking them in the ship canal.

  6. Of course it’s the West’s fault – if we hadn’t invented the plastic bag and the plastic bottle and got their price point down to $trivial they wouldn’t have them in the non-west to throw into rivers once they’d done with them, innit……..

    Obviously [/sarc]

  7. 95% of all ocean plastic from anywhere but the West. And yet her plan is to target the West.

    Her plan is to target rich nations rife with guilt-ridden idiots and a political class that likes giving away the population’s hard-earned. Not genius perhaps, but it will pay for her children’s education, with enough left over for plastic-free holidays.

  8. Would it help if I spent more time washing out yogurt pots and sorting my rubbish according to strange symbols stamped on the packaging? I’m already near flat-out, but I may have some spare capacity…

  9. @Sam Vara – yes, you need nudging to wash your yoghurt pots out better to prevent third worlders from tossing plastic shopping bags in to the river.

    Surely that’s entirely obvious?

  10. Hang on- I’ve lived near the sea all my life. I can tell you now that the amount of rubbish washed ashore nowadays is a fraction of what it was thirty years ago.

  11. @John Square – how bigoted of you to discriminate between British and African beaches like that! :p

  12. @”Hang on- I’ve lived near the sea all my life. I can tell you now that the amount of rubbish washed ashore nowadays is a fraction of what it was thirty years ago.”
    That is good news

    @”Caribbean Islands would be my guess. Unless it’s White Lightning bottles, in which case scally Mancs have been chucking them in the ship canal.”
    It was the pacific so I guess not.

  13. It was the pacific so I guess not.

    I am to South American geography what Dianne Abbott is to mathematics.

  14. I once did a study on a series of stilt villages built over tidal flats in Papua New Guinea. Because it is customary land there is no municipal garbage collection, and so everything goes over the side, to be magically removed by the tide every day. No waste problems for those villagers. I’d estimate that millions of people live in stilt villages and settlements world-wide.

  15. @Korong,

    I dont suppose that study included the stilted village of Poreporena on the outskirts of Port Moresby, I used to drive past it every day when we built the nearby Napa Napa Oil Refinery.

    I worked all over PNG including the highlands and the outer islands and have seen first hand massive outflows of arsenic laden sediments from Ok Tedi and other mine ore processing directly into waterways and the sea. We also built the tailing line for Lihir Gold Mine in New Ireland which at the time was the longest ever HDD line, from memory it was at least 120m long and 1m in diameter. There wasn’t much room for tailing storage and processing on site and it pissed down every day so the idea was that we would pump it straight down to a deep level and the theory was that it wouldn’t cause any harm at that deep a level. Kind of sweeping it under the oceans blanket. So from what I seen up there the potential environmental damage from unseen mine waste was orders of magnitude higher than the unsightly plastic thrown over the sides of the stilted villages.

  16. Quite possibly the finest line you have ever written, sir. I will treasure it.

    Thanks!

    Also, in passing as it were, the woman didn’t see a boy throw a plastic bottle into the sparkling water. I call fake news because in the pantheon of the hack reporter, such a closing line is like gold:

    I fully agree. It seems awfully convenient.

  17. Harrabin on UN’s Svensson with: ‘planetary crisis’. Having read the article, I (perhaps unusually with Harrabin on this occasion) wonder why. His ‘single quotes’ – make him seem less than convinced.

    In fact, why even ecosystem crisis? Is there a shortage of turtles? I was introduced, in the wild, to two Greenback egg-layers in a single hour last year. And first I watched over 2 sproggs making their personal dashes to the sea, in less than 30 minutes; all this on less than a single mile of beach and in around half of a single day. The turtle population’s problem with plastic was mentioned there/then, but so were far greater problems. Tourists disturbing egg-laying, birds eating the hatchings during their 30m dash and other small-mouthed thingies eating the hatchlings in their 300km swim (before they grow enough to protect against the small-mouths).

    Back to the ecosystem crisis, the plastic looks manageable to me: just needs fishing with closer to the enthusiasm we put into cod and/or tuna – as well as a bit more recycling in the third world. But I would be accepting of substantiated contrary arguments.

    As for a real ecosystem crisis, might that not be something along the lines of the Chicxulub Impact, that allegedly did for the dinosaurs, and happened back in 66,000,000 BCE. Since then we have just had to manage better the oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, survive a few volcanic eruptions (and cause CAGW if you are hunting for a different myth to complain about). Back at Chicxulub, Planet Earth probably just said the equivalent of: “Ouch! Did you see that!!?”

    So what do we need for a planetary crisis? I suggest a really big comet knocking Earth into a different orbit, such that water/carbon life forms are no longer viable – even after ‘recovering’ from the impact. Or, even more planetary: an impact changing the number of planets/moons.

    Best regards

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