Tue, Jun 04, 2019 - Page 8 News List

State must act on plastics problem

By Bruno Walther

A recent editorial mentioned work my colleagues and I did on plastic pollution (“A Sisyphean task, but worth it,” May 25, page 8). Therefore, I want to take the opportunity to elaborate on the progress made since my last editorial on this environmental crisis (“Nation engulfed by plastic tsunami,” Jan. 9, 2015, page 8).

First let me point out that other scientists in Taiwan have also been doing great work on this issue, but I will focus on our work here.

In two publications in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, we were able to demonstrate that microplastic pollution is almost ubiquitous around Taiwan’s coast.

Microplastics are smaller pieces that are visible to the naked eye (2.5cm) down to very small fragments (0.001mm) only detectable under the microscope, while macroplastics are the bigger items and pieces (>2.5 cm) that people see everywhere and pick up during coastal cleanup events.

We showed that microplastics come in a variety of shapes and colors, because most originate from the fragmentation of larger items. However, about 11 percent are small pellets used to make larger items, but which escaped into the environment prior to manufacturing.

We were also the first in the world to use a special statistical technique to estimate the total number of microplastics found in the sandy surface layer of a 2km-long beach in northern Taiwan. We extrapolated that a staggering 6.8 million microplastic particles weighing 250kg are found on this beach alone. Given that about 50 percent of Taiwan’s 1,340km coastline consists of sandy beaches, 2 billion to 3 billion particles could be scattered there.

In another Marine Pollution Bulletin study, we used data gathered by citizen scientists during 541 cleanup events to estimate that, on average, about 7.9 million larger debris items, which are mainly macroplastics, weighing 1,110 tonnes pollute Taiwan’s coastline. What is noteworthy is that this trash is constantly removed by cleanup activities, which, according to the Environmental Protection Administration, annually collect between 4,000 and 13,000 metric tons, with many areas being cleaned multiple times a year. Hence, this constant removal must be counterbalanced by a constant supply from the oceans, rivers and land depositing new trash.

Much of it comes from the oceans, which human activities are turning into an increasingly lifeless and polluted dead zone. On current trends, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 (“Micro-plastics found in Arctic sea ice,” May 6, 2018, page 9).

Almost inevitably, the pollution that we recklessly inflict on the environment comes back to bite us in the backside. Besides the often terrible effects on wildlife (“Pygmy whales die despite Kaohsiung rescue efforts,” March 11, 2018, page 3), plastic pollution has several direct impacts on human health such as shipping accidents (“Mail lost in shipwreck, redress draws ire,” Jan. 16, 2018, page 3), the ingestion of microplastic particles via food (“Microplastics found in seafood, water: survey,” Sept. 26, 2018, page 3; “Most fish contain microplastic: study,” May 14, page 4), and the contamination of air, food, and water with unhealthy substances leached from the plastics (“Plasticizers posing health risk to Taiwanese: doctor,” May 26, page 1).

Accordingly, our research has documented the presence of microplastic particles in Taiwanese seafood and sea salts.

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