More fish, not plastic

WHEN the two current trends of decline in fisheries and the increase in plastic pollution in our oceans combine, it has been predicted in a report at the 2016 World Economic Forum that there will be more plastic than fish in 2050.

Food security and public health are now factors in truly understanding the seriousness of wastes floating in the sea. These wastes may be the familiar single-use plastic bags, straws, food packaging, sachets and balloons we can imagine floating in our vast oceans. We no longer require imagination when we have documentation of how these plastic trashes kill animals such as whales, turtles and seabirds. There are also the microplastics, including nurdles from plastic and synthetic materials broken down but not fully decomposed, and microbeads from our cosmetic products, which threaten the health of our fisheries worldwide. The accumulation of microplastics in the food web is real.

The Philippines ranks third among top source countries of marine debris. Not only are we harming other living beings, we also ultimately affect our own food sources and health.

This future of more plastic than fish – do we accept it?

In recent years, more and more people have become aware that our dependence on plastic materials, especially those we dispose after using once, is creating patches of garbage floating among ocean currents. In 2011, a 16-year-old boy from the Netherlands said it was not impossible to clean up all the plastic from the ocean. Years later, Boyan Slat is now the CEO of the Ocean Cleanup which is developing innovative technologies to rid the world’s ocean of all plastic.

A colleague in the movement has pointed out that collecting marine debris is picking up other people’s garbage. The obvious implication is that in order for us to truly solve the problem, we need to nip it in the bud. We need to reduce our use of plastic materials, period. We need to lower the demand for plastic packaging and find alternative reusable or plastic-free products. But how do we do it? How do we make it fit in an economic reality where plastic is cheap, and consumers especially in the Philippines patronize smaller packaging so they can afford the goods, or use plastic for its convenience and availability?

To me this is a major challenge of our generation: To come up with creative solutions in dealing with plastic waste. We already have societies in the world where single-use plastic is banned, or where consumers are more conscious of what products they buy with less plastic packaging. We’ve tried bags and coin purses made from recycled plastic. We’ve started the controversial production of eco-bricks or hollow-blocks with a central ingredient of plastic waste tucked into PET bottles. There’s also the concept of circular economy where we recover waste to become raw materials for new products. There’s the waste-to-energy model as well. Because of the Internet and social media, many other ideas are constantly developing, and the very same human ingenuity that caused the problem is being employed to solve it.

Are they working? How can we improve them? We need to be prepared to work together to test out these approaches and come back to drawing boards for new approaches.

As organizations like the one I’m working for – the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation – continue to find opportunities to act on the marine plastic pollution problem, I have seen how ideas can sometimes be too ambitious or optimistic. But we need them.

We need young inventors like Boyan Slat to say we can clean up all the plastic from the ocean. We need lifestyle changes like bringing reusable straws, utensils, lunchboxes and beverage tumblers everywhere we go. We need to lobby for policies towards a society with less waste. We need to dream of technologies that can transform plastic waste into something we can use again. We also need the skeptic colleague who will challenge solutions so we can have better ones.

It could be a cliché to always speak about working together. But we have to. We can’t just put the blame on coastal communities that keep buying sachets or local governments that don’t implement or comply with our solid waste management laws. We have to sit down in our communities, talk about the problem, and engage into deeper awareness of why the problem exists and what possible solutions we could find, no matter how ambitious. We also have to remember that for most people, food security is most important. We want more fish, not plastic.

This mindset can help us work with our leaders and colleagues, with our teachers and students, with our families and villages to take a hard look into potential solutions. To all of you who are working on this issue, thank you. Let’s find each other and converge while we all aspire for cleaner and healthier seas.