I clearly remember my fist sight of Kuta beach, Bali. White sand and blue water, palm trees on the shore. It was hot and humid; the middle of the rainy season in Indonesia and there had been a big rainstorm in the previous days. The air shimmered with heat and water vapour as the heat of the sun evaporated water from puddles on the roadway. It truly appeared to be paradise. We could see why it had the reputation as the beach that put Bali on the map: beauty and an amazing surf break endlessly rolling onto the shore.
As we walked closer, reality began to sink in. The otherwise idyllic beach was strewn with garbage. Plastic waste to be specific. The rains had washed the single use plastic down the ravines, into the rivers and out into the ocean where it was deposited on the beach by tides and waves.
Not even one square foot of sand (30 cm2) was clear of plastic. My kids insisted on surfing and in one photo my son looks horrified down at his leg as he surfs – a piece of plastic bag stuck to his leg, wrapped around his thigh. There is no one simple solution. Local residents do not have access to proper waste collection therefore they do what their ancestors have done for thousands of years – throw their garbage into ravines where it is washed away by the rains.
In previous generations most waste products would have been made from organic materials that composted and added nutrients to the soil, but in more recent years this has changed to convenience type items packaged in single use plastic. Typical beach litter consists of single use plastic cups of water, bottles of all types, Styrofoam, plastic bags, and the ubiquitous flip flops – footwear worn by almost everyone in South East Asia it seems.
The solution seems simple: provide a means of garbage collection or elimination of single use plastic. Public awareness also helps, but most of the people there are living on wages that we in the west would consider a daily coffee budget. It is difficult to consider anything other than immediate needs when you are always so close to the edge financially. Both awareness and reduction of the use of plastics will help but the fact is the use of improper disposal of plastic is not going away over night.
One solution recently developed in the Netherlands is a great step forward in the fight against ocean plastic pollution. We won’t stop single use plastic over night, but this type of intervention might help. A “net of bubbles” from a aeration pipe on the riverbed diverts floating plastic from the river into a collection system.
The bubbles do not affect wildlife, fish, marine traffic or recreational users and require relatively small energy input. The simplicity of the system means that it could be deployed in developing areas that do not have access to complex machine repair shops or repair technicians. It is reported to stop 85% of plastic it encounters.
There are many people working to find a solution to the ocean plastic problem. Some like highly publicized Boyan Slat, use technology, others use monetary incentives to turn plastic waste into a valuable commodity creating an economy around collection and reuse of plastic. In India, the incentives encourage local fishermen to build roads from plastic and in Sweden, some cities use plastic waste to provide energy to power cities.
The few initiatives listed here are just a tiny amount of the huge number of people and projects actively working to help the oceans. Slowly, as public awareness increases the companies that produce this trash will realize that they will soon be held accountable. Other companies who consider themselves to be good corporate citizens (or are at least paying lip service to it) are now incorporating recycled plastic into their products. Volvo will be incorporating 25% of recycled plastic into their cars, Adidas is making shoes made from ocean plastic and Coca Cola, one of the largest producers of plastic bottles, is using 100% recycled bottles in some markets.
The tide is changing on ocean plastic and public pressure on governments and companies is helping to speed this change. Vote every day with your dollars and the companies will listen.
In other top happy eco news stories, the boreal forest is a Rockstar when it comes to fighting climate change, Leonardo Di Caprio and Will Smith teamed up to benefit the Amazon, the Netherlands are on track to reach 27 GW of installed solar by 2030 and a Dutch design group built a living building from mushroom mycelium that cleans the air as it grows, capturing carbon and other pollution.
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