A Vietnamese mangrove draped with polythene, a whale killed after swallowing waste bags in Thai seas and clouds of underwater trash near Indonesian “paradise” islands — grim images of the plastic crisis that has gripped Asia.
About 8 million tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic being tipped into the sea every minute of every day.
More than half comes from five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, according to a 2015 Ocean Conservancy report.
They are among the fastest growing economies in Asia, where much of the world’s plastic is produced, consumed and discarded — most of it improperly in countries where waste management is at best patchy.
Experts warn the greatest threat might be invisible.
Microplastics — tiny shards that easily soak up toxins after breaking off from larger plastic pieces — have been found in tap water, ground water and inside fish that millions of people eat across Asia every day.
Scientists still do not fully understand the health effects of consuming microplastics.
“We’re conducting a global experiment with no sense of where we’re heading with this whole thing,” said Carl Gustaf Lundin, head of the global marine and polar program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
That worries Vietnamese fisherwoman Nguyen Thi Phuong, whose sleepy village on the South China Sea coast in Thanh Hoa province has slowly transformed into a dump site over the years.
“It’s unbearable, people discard their garbage here ... it’s so polluted for the children, it’s not safe,” she said in the baking heat thick with the smell of trash and fish.
In the nearby mangrove forest, her neighbors dig through warm, trash-speckled mud for snails or shrimp.
However, the tree branches above are blanketed with faded plastic bags left behind from tidal waters that wash up fresh waste every day.
A 1km stretch of beach is lined with sandals, snack wrappers, tubes of Japanese toothpaste, juice boxes, fishing nets, furniture and heaps of discarded clothing, as piles of trash burn nearby.
Garbage collection is low in rural Vietnam, one of the main reasons that so much plastic ends up in the sea, said Joi Danielson, program director of Oceans Plastics Asia at SYSTEMIQ.
On average only about 40 percent of garbage is properly collected in the five plastic-addled countries that spit out most of the ocean’s trash, with few resources dedicated to proper waste management, especially in mushrooming megacities.
Plastic consumption — and waste — also continues to balloon along with growing incomes and dependence on plastic products integral to almost every aspect of daily life.
At the current rate of dumping, the total amount of plastic trash in the world’s oceans is expected to double to 250 million tonnes by 2025, according to Ocean Conservancy, which means that there could be more plastic than fish in the world’s seas by 2050 if nothing is done to turn the tide.
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