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.
What should be done? Many environmental issues progress along the following steps:
First, scientists raise and the media takes up the issue, usually followed by calls for voluntary action such as recycling plastics or buying an electric vehicle, which almost invariably prove to have negligible impact.
Eventually, governments up the ante by taxing undesirable products by charging fees for plastic products, trash disposal and carbon dioxide emissions, or subsidizing desirable products, such as mushroom-based packaging and electric vehicles.
Finally, governments can limit or completely ban products such as some plastic items and fossil fuel-powered cars.
I would argue that for many uses of plastic, especially single-use packaging, only the last step will prove to be sufficient to avert an environmental catastrophe.
Incidentally, the same argument applies to banning the use of fossil fuels (“Climate awareness is not alarmism,” May 9, page 8). Only the complete global ban of ozone-destroying chemicals was sufficient to halt the destruction of the ozone layer.
It is therefore extremely praiseworthy that the current government is actually planning complete bans (“EPA sets timetable to ban plastic use,” Feb. 14, 2018, page 1), although it still does not include enough plastic products and will be enacted too slowly.
Unfortunately, corporations with vested interests are forever pushing the bullshit argument that government regulations and bans will endanger the economy, and consequently jobs and livelihoods.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, good governmental regulations replace an unwanted economic activity with another desired economic activity, often with positive consequences for socioeconomic and technological progress.
Just consider how quickly new products and companies have sprung up once a plastic ban was announced (“Drinking responsibly: non-plastic straws,” Sept. 19, 2018, page 14; “Eco-straws win at inventors’ fair,” Oct. 22, 2018, page 3).
The same is of course happening with energy. Fossil fuel companies are being replaced by renewable energy companies (“Investors turn against fossil fuels at summit,” Dec. 14, 2017, page 6).
I advised additional solutions in my previous editorial, but certainly much more education and awareness campaigns are needed. How little the possible threat from plastic pollution is understood by most people, even scientists, is illustrated by the following examples:
So-called public health experts at my previous university openly opposed and even ridiculed my research into plastic pollution, claiming it was not a human health or pollution issue worthy of investigation, and that consuming microplastic particles is probably equivalent to consuming grains of sand.
One of my colleagues at the nation’s best university was even advised by another professor that this research was “a waste of time.”
If even scientists still dismiss the severity of this global crisis, we obviously have a long way to go in educating people.
As a scientist, all I can do is publish my research in respectable scientific journals and inform the public by writing in the news media.
It is then the responsibility of the government, the media and the public to either confront these issues or ignore them.
Bruno Walther is a professor of biology at National Sun Yat-sen University’s Department of Biological Sciences.
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