Tue, Jul 18, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Asia drowning oceans in waste

By Hua Jian 華健

The New Taipei City Government has urged fishermen to establish a “maritime litter task force,” one of a number of initiatives being developed by the central and local governments to combat the growing problem of marine debris.

Marine debris is a global problem. Beach clean-ups are a popular activity that has been going on for decades in Taiwan, but it seems to be that no sooner is rubbish cleared than it is quickly replaced by even more refuse.

Media reports of armies of litter pickers working tirelessly up and down the nation’s coastline and even on uninhabited islands has elevated the issue of marine debris in the public’s consciousness.

Regrettably, there is still insufficient information on the issue and the nation lacks effective measures to deal with the problem. The situation is actually far worse than many people imagine.

Part of the problem is we approach the issue of marine debris in the same way we approach other environmental issues: If we can see litter, we view it as evidence of a problem, but if we do not see any, we assume the water is clean.

In reality, we are only able to perceive 5 percent of the litter in our oceans; the remaining 95 percent is buried deep beneath the surface. It is this unseen volume of debris that poses the greatest threat to ocean wildlife, the marine food chain and the overall ecological system.

Statistics shows that the top five global contributors of plastic marine litter are Asian countries, and together they produce 60 percent of the plastic waste in the ocean. As their economies developed, Asian consumers became used to the convenience of a modern lifestyle, but without developing the practice of proper waste management.

In Asia, not all waste passes through official waste management systems and is often dumped illegally. As a result, waste is carried by wind and water, with a portion of it ending up in the ocean and continuing to drift further out to sea. Even if the waste is disposed of in a landfill, if the landfill is located near to a river, it is not difficult to imagine how during heavy rains and typhoons, the rubbish is washed out into the river and carried out to sea.

Although recycling does alleviate some of this problem, a majority of the recycling efforts in Asia is focused on recycling bottles, aluminum cans and other high-value, collectable items. Lower-value materials, such as plastic bags, are frequently filtered out of the recycling process, which means there is a chance they will end up in the ocean.

Excluding discarded fishing tackles, the majority of ocean waste is made up of normal consumer products.

The use of disposal food and drinks containers is a particularly acute problem in Asia. Businesses have developed ever more intricate and absurdly wasteful packaging for their products, which has exacerbated the problem.

While everyone accepts that we all bear a responsibility for this problem, whenever a serious effort is made to tackle the issue, the typical response is to heap all responsibility onto the producers or manufacturers.

It is easy to blame overpopulation for many environmental issues, but people have gradually realized that it is excessive consumerism and an insatiable appetite that are the real reason why the planet is under threat.

In a world of excessive growth and untrammeled consumerism, disposable products are taken as a matter of course. The rubbish crisis in Yunlin County is by no means a one-off incident. As the crisis in Taiwan builds into an even bigger problem, it is inevitable that an increasing amount of litter will find its way into the ocean.

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