Sustainability 101: Plastics in the Water

I recently overheard some ladies on the MTR talking about how being obsessed with plastic pollution is becoming a bit of a ‘thing’, at least in their circles. Indeed, it seems that news about plastic pollution in water and on land is constantly, almost daily, appearing in my newsfeed. It may not be an issue on everyone’s radar, but surely you have noticed that the local beaches are consistently covered with plastic flotsam of all shapes and sizes and that many waste bins around town seem to always be overflowing with single-use food packaging of all shapes and sizes. This is because we have a problem, and it’s the result of (in extremely simplified terms) an unfortunate combination of plastic-based, highly consumptive habits and an overall lack of understanding and awareness of how to manage the resulting waste.

Our daily lives are inextricably linked with plastics. We constantly use them: in our clothing, housing, automobiles, computers, packaging, transportation, signs, recreation items, medical implants – the list goes on. Despite vast value chains dedicated to creating plastic products, it seems we forgot to think about the ‘end of life’ aspect too. What happens after you finish a bottle of water or a face cream? In some places, it may get recycled, but according to research by Geyer et. al, a mere 9% of all plastic (like since we started making plastic in the early 1900s) waste ever produced has been recycled. Some 12% has been incinerated, while the rest - 79% - has accumulated in landfills, dumpsites, or has ended up in the natural environment. Rivers and lakes are the main receptacles for dumping in many countries (due to the lack of proper waste infrastructure) which upsets the flow and access of potable water to millions of people.

Water contamination from plastic pollution poses a major threat to the environment and should be regarded as a priority environmental and health issue deserving concerted global action (according to the UN, World Bank, WHO, and more). The impact on the environment caused by the waste that plastics generate may be irreversible and has become a major challenge for those responsible for solid waste management (SWM), water quality, urban planning, and the associated impacts on the environment. It’s a problem that weekend beach cleanups alone simply will NOT resolve (and isn’t it ironic that so many beach cleanups are sponsored by the very companies that contribute to the problem to begin with? I’m looking at you Nestlé).

So, if it’s not recycled, and most is sent to landfill – how has so much ended up in the ocean? A 2015 report published by the McKinsey & Company and Ocean Conservancy found that over half of the world’s plastic pollution that ends up in our seas comes from five Asian economies – China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam – where an increase in demand for consumer products has not been matched with waste or recycling infrastructure. Additionally, a 2017 study on the Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea found that a vast majority of plastic marine debris comes from the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges Delta in Asia, as well as the Niger and Nile in Africa. These reports emphasize that the growing issue of global plastic pollution can be addressed by looking at how plastic waste is managed along these rivers and that opportunities to fix the issue are within reach.

However, properly managing solid waste and plastics is a challenging undertaking, particularly economically, and it is rarely a priority issue at the local level. Managing an effective and efficient SWM system that provides an environmentally sustainable and scalable service has not been adequately implemented along any of Asia’s top polluting rivers. Indeed, for Asian countries with the largest plastic pollution problem, namely China, there is a lack of local expertise in waste-management engineering and innovative, on-the-ground collection and separation mechanisms, not to mention formal project financing. Any successful SWM system needs to provide quality service and integrate health and safety-oriented training for waste collectors. Unfortunately, in many countries, there is insufficient legislative action on SWM, which is reflected through weak rules and regulations, as well as a tendency towards crisis management, untimely training, and outdated and unreliable waste and plastic pollution data.

Communities along polluted rivers need to figure out how to better manage their SWM systems as well as how to educate the population about waste and water quality, without drastically confronting the daily lives of millions of people. Enhanced education and financial programs that encourage sustainable waste practices are also underutilized – did you know the Hong Kong government hosts a Waste Reduction website that gives tons of useful information about how to adjust wasteful habits? It’s pretty helpful. This just highlights that linkages on this issue fall short on connecting waste collection options, knowledge sharing, urban planning for SWM, private sector engagement, and public awareness-raising. After all, you cannot manage what you do not measure and none of that matters if people don’t pay attention or use waste collection bins if the option is even available.

SWM requires a strong social contract between the folks who are managing the waste and the beneficiary communities – i.e. you and me. This means the flow of plastic needs to be reduced at its source, with parallel improvements in the way plastic is made, transported, used, and disposed of. It takes time and a comprehensive understanding of the composition of waste, generation indicators, and the public perception among various stakeholders and communities for a successful change to take place. All of these facets are prerequisites for making a lasting change in SWM with which few governments are equipped. For example, Hong Kong’s own government website states that the landfills will likely be full by 2020, yet has struggled to launch a waste charging scheme that would at least help with the cost of managing the SAR’s ever-increasing amount of waste.

So, what does that mean for the rest of us? It is imperative that the private sector, governing bodies, and consumers, as well as those responsible for SWM and water quality preservation, are aware of and take responsibility for the impacts of plastic pollution on the waste stream and the environment. It is well overdue to have a rethink about how the ecological and epidemiological aspects of water and SWM relate to the sociological aspects of how humans interact with the environment. In short, our behavior has to change for water and waste pollution problems to go away.

A good SWM system is like good health, and just like our own bodies, it is necessary to use preventative measures such as at the source waste reduction and segregation as well as reactive measures for a healthy system to be fully functional and to prosper. Hypothetically the amount of waste entering rivers and oceans could be reduced by challenging current attitudes towards plastic use, promoting an education program that increases awareness about plastic pollution, and encouraging improved access to waste facilities.

It is through this combination of education and improved infrastructure that we can all learn to think of plastic and waste as a resource that is part of a circular value chain, instead of a disposable problem. Let’s get as obsessed about picking up after ourselves as we are about buying stuff, and who knows, maybe we can even help keep the oceans and beaches clean too.

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