In 1997, Captain Charles Moore was the first human to find and report on a vast floating wasteland of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean as he sailed home on an unusual route in his yacht. Named the Pacific Garbage Patch by oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, this visible mass of floating debris has since gained notoriety, highlighting the problem of plastic marine debris to the masses. Other popular depictions of the oceanic plastic problem is that of islands made out of large abandoned plastic items as has been documented in Thilafushi, Maldives, and interminable plastic garbage streaming out of rivers. International Coastal Clean-ups held globally every year by the Ocean Conservancy indicate that the top ten items collected in one day of beach clean-ups are plastic; comprising items such as cigarette butts, food wrappers, straws and stirrers, plastic beverage bottles and plastic bags.
However, recent research has indicated that 46% of the waste in the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is fishing gear, and of the plastics in the patch, 96% is microplastic. Between the time that plastic waste comes off land and beaches and enters oceanic currents to reach any of the garbage patches circulating in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean gyres (there are now 5 of such patches), they break down into the tiny pieces referred to as microplastics. These are the fragments that enter the marine (and eventually human) food chain as they are consumed by animals such as jellyfish, which are in turn consumed by other animals; but many recent reports of marine mammal deaths indicate that larger plastic pieces are also consumed whole.
Unfortunately, this ugly picture is an incomplete depiction of only that which is easily visible. Plastic was found in a submersible dive towards the bottom of the Mariana Trench, reported to be at almost 11,000 metres’ depth. The vast collection of plastic and other marine debris at sea both leach and concentrate heavy metals and other toxic pollutants, contributing to issues of seafood safety. Remote islands coated in plastic waste represent structural changes in local natural ecosystems as beaches transform from soft sand to brittle broken-down waste-made substrates. Rafts of floating debris or rubbish from natural disasters such as tsunami carry invasive species as they traverse oceans and seas to new destinations. It is a lengthy list of invisible issues.
Defining Marine Debris and the Plastic Problem
Marine debris refers to “all persistent, manufactured, or processed solid material disposed of or abandoned over coastal and marine environments” (Williams and Rangel-Buitrago, 2019), which can include plastic, wood, rubber, glass, metal and organic litter. These items can be accidently lost or purposely disposed of or dumped at sea, and also comprise waste from land that has washed off landfills or improperly managed waste collection systems. For much of Southeast Asia, there is no proper waste collection or management system to begin with.
Once this rubbish or any other marine debris enters the oceans, they gather in what often looks like reservoirs of plastic; along coastlines and beaches, floating at the sea surface and on the seafloor. Less visible to the eye is the recently proven existence of microplastics in the water column, in sediment and even in sea ice. Some of this debris has been found at distances and depths far from human existence, at 2,500m depth in the mid-Atlantic range (Law, 2017).
Much of the focus on marine debris has to do with plastic; a material that seems infinitely durable and extremely resistant to degradation. Although its presence in the Pacific Garbage Patch is not as dominant as expected, on some beaches, islands and coastlines, plastic comprises 100% of the litter in the area. The volume of plastic production has boomed over recent decades. Williams and Rangel-Buitrago (2019) report that it has grown from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 381 million metric tons in 2015. Geyer et al (2017) estimated that 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste was generated in the same year, with only 9% recycled, 12% incinerated and the remaining 79% in landfills or the natural environment. They project that by 2050, 12 thousand million metric tons of waste will be in landfills or the natural environment. In 2016, global production of plastics increased to 396 million metric tons, an increase of 4.04%, with Asia leading in overall production (50%) at 167.5 million metric tons.
The first point at which plastic can pollute the natural environment is at resin production. These millimetre-sized almost spherical beads, also called ‘nurdles’ or ‘mermaid tears’ are the feedstock of plastic. They are incredibly light and have been known to be lost during transport or in handling accidents. As tiny as they already are, they breakdown into even smaller fragments, which then accumulate and concentrate toxins, heavy metals and other pollutants in seawater. They never degrade, and are permanent fixtures in the marine environment – often being consumed by fish and other creatures that filter or swallow seawater with their prey. Add to that the incessant flow of large items into the sea; the 2019 International Coastal Clean-up report estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every year – “a dump truck of plastic every minute, every hour, every day” (Ocean Conservancy, 2019).
The impact of all this plastic entering the marine ecosystem is severe. Numerous reports of marine animals found dead with stomachs full of plastic have surfaced recently. Whether plastics are mistaken for their regular prey or whether the plastic is ingested as part of an animal’s filter feeding, the presence of plastic in the stomach has varied consequences. For some, plastics reduce the animals’ stomach capacity, giving it a false sense of satiation when it actually needs to feed; internal injuries can be inflicted by sharp-edged plastic; plastic cannot be digested and may contain high concentrations of toxic chemicals which poisons an animal from within. The World Wildlife Fund Australia has estimated that 100,000 marine mammals die every year as a result of marine litter ingestion; “a slow excruciating death”.
Entanglement is the image that is most commonly depicted as the evil consequence of plastic debris. In a review of 340 original publications on marine debris, Gall and Thompson (2015) found that 71% of the reports were on marine species entanglement with plastic rope or netting; 44,006 individuals from 267 species, with 17% being animals that are threatened, vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. When entangled, marine mammals and reptiles (such as turtles) are unable to surface for air. Fish such as sharks which need to keep moving to ensure enough oxygen enters through their gills also drown when ensnared. Some animals get caught in items such as bottle rings; these hold their mouths shut, preventing them from feeding. Other debris can cause injury, abrasion or breakage of benthic animals (those which are fixed to the seabed, such as corals and sponges).
Less visible to the naked eye, however, is the problem of microplastics; tiny fragments of plastic that can become vectors for persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals. The longer a fragment remains in the sea, the more it absorbs and concentrates within it. Studies have shown that by the time large plastic items enter the centre of the oceanic gyres where it floats forever as microplastics, it has been abandoned in the ocean for anywhere between 20 to 450 years. What is seen or sieved at the surface, however, is just a fraction of what is there. Some of these microplastics are eaten by fish, others sink to the bottom of the sea.
But even as they disappear out of sight, more invade the marine biosphere. With each use of a cosmetic product, between 4,594 and 94,000 microbeads are released into the sewers (and eventually to sea). With every wash of a synthetic garment, 1,600 plastic microfibres enter the waterways (Williams and Rangel-Buitrago, 2019). Recent scientific studies quoted by the Ocean Conservancy (2019) report microplastic presence in drinking water from groundwater sources and bottled mineral water. Sheavly and Register (2007) note that humans have been dumping waste in the oceans for centuries, but the proliferation and pervasiveness of plastic in that waste indicates that there is no ‘away’ in today’s throwaway culture.
Looking at it Locally – The situation in Malaysia and Singapore
In a 2015 study in Science Magazine, Jambeck et al point out that Malaysia is the world’s 8th largest producer of mismanaged waste, with 1.52 kg of waste generated per person per day. Malaysia produces 0.94 million metric tons (MMT) of waste per year, 2.9% of which is mismanaged plastic waste. The top three countries cited in this list are China (8.82 MMT per year), Indonesia (3.22 MMT per year) and the Philippines (1.88 MMT per year). Officially reported figures indicate that Malaysia produced a total of 2.02 million tonnes of scheduled waste in 2017. In figures cited from SWCorp Malaysia, the nation’s main solid waste management corporation, Malaysians produced an average of 236,000 tonnes of waste per month in 2018, with only 0.06% (150 tonnes) recycled monthly.
While Singapore does not figure in the list of nations ranked for its mismanaged waste, officially reported figures indicate that 949,300 tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2018, about 12.3% of the total 7,695,100 solid waste generated. Of the plastic waste, only 4.3% is recycled. A study by Lim (2019), revealed that Singapore is in fact more of a “cleaned city” than the “clean city” that it depicts in images. Her study showed that even as waste production increased by about 31% between 2008 and 2018, more was also improperly disposed of; 39,000 tickets for littering offences were issued in 2019 – a 22% increase from 32,000 offences in 2017. On hand to sweep up most of the improperly disposed rubbish are 70,000 cleaners hired to pick up after the island nation’s population of 5 million.
Official figures aside, coastal clean-up data indicates that there is still a lot more rubbish that escapes national waste collection systems. In the 2019 International Coastal Clean-up Report, 3,580 people in Singapore collected 13,730 kg of trash along 32 km of coastline; most of which were cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles and straws or stirrers. In Malaysia, 9,280 people collected 17,649 kg of trash along a 1,728.2 km coastline in one day, most of which were plastic beverage bottles, cigarette butts and plastic grocery bags (in that order). This sample of a single day’s effort at cleaning up a fraction of the total shorelines of both countries are but the tip of the rubbish problem that exists.
In response to the growing issue of never-ending waste, several initiatives have been put in place. Several Malaysian states have initiated plastic bag bans (Penang, Selangor and Kedah) on specific days of the week, while straws can only be distributed to people with a disability or who are unwell in Selangor. A Road Map towards Zero Single-Use Plastic 2018-2030 was released by the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change (MESTECC), with a goal of doing away with single-use plastic items by 2030. The Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association reports that every Malaysian throws away an average of 300 plastic bags a year, and has since put out a White Paper on the need for an advanced plastic recycling industry that can contribute to a sustainable and circular economy. However, much of rural Malaysia does not have proper waste collection infrastructure or services; a problem blamed on village folk being unwilling to pay for such services. This is not a public good provided by the state or federal government. Villagers therefore either burn their waste or toss them into drains, streams or the sea.
Singapore, on the other hand, has highly commended waste collection systems, but does not have a ban or tax on single-use plastic, and instead focuses on encouraging better consumption habits. In 2019, more than 270 food outlets stopped providing plastic straws to its customers (3.5% of all F&B outlets in Singapore). This move is said to result in a reduction in the use of 2.2 million straws daily, and was in response to a 2018 position paper by the Singapore Environment Council that reported that Singaporeans use 820 million supermarket plastic bags, 467 million PET bottles and 473 million plastic disposable items every year. 
Is this Enough?
Abstinence from plastic bag, straw and stirrer use invariably reduces the amount of plastic disposable items consumed. However, plastics purchase data reveals that 20,000 drinks in plastic bottles are purchased globally every second (Global Citizen, 2018). For a country that has drinking water available out of the tap, Singaporean consumers spent SGD 134 million (USD 130.4 million) on bottled water in 2015. In 2018, a study by the Singapore Environment Council reported that the island-nation’s obsession with bottled water resulted in 467 million plastic bottles used a year. There seems to be little serious effort at reducing this consumption, notwithstanding its impacts on the environment. Beverage bottles were the second most collected item in the annual coastal clean-up in Singapore, but revenue from the sale of bottled water calculated thus far for 2019 is a hefty USD 98 million.
Plastics are now “erroneously seen as essential” (Williams and Rangel-Buitrago, 2019). And indeed, in the same publication, the authors state that hospitals cannot get by without plastic, but Sheavly and Register (2017) posit that plastics are “a pervasive and solvable problem”. The attempt by the Malaysian Plastic Manufacturer’s Association is one example advocated by the authors: to ensure that the plastic industry is involved in finding solutions. Among the options available in improving plastic at the production stage are to evolve production methods so that items produced are more durable; to use more recycled material in the production process or to ensure that products can be recycled post-use; to prevent microfibres from falling off clothes and removing microbeads from cosmetic products; and to create disposable products made from natural materials as indigenous communities did for generations - such as using leaves for plates and creating soy, rice or wheat products for cutlery.
Recycling plastic results in energy and cost savings when compared to the virgin production of plastic items. While it costs USD 4,000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags, the recycled items can be sold at twice the cost. The recycling of this ton of bags also saves about 907 kg of oil, the equivalent of one person’s water use in 2 months and two people’s energy consumption for a year. But there have been many other innovations in the recycling of plastic. Numerous indigenous groups have recycled waste into bags while fashion houses have jumped onto the sustainability train with shoes and bags made from recycled ocean plastic. Abandoned fishing net and filament line have been repurposed as 3D printer filament, and in India, fishermen are collecting plastic waste from the sea to create roads.
Myriad efforts abound of innovations to scoop rubbish from the oceans and coastlines; from the use of huge booms in the garbage patch to myriad clean-ups by communities, NGOs and corporate entities. But clean-ups are time-consuming and only capture a portion of the waste that floats or strands on a beach; underwater clean-ups exist, but are limited in scope and effectiveness. While abstaining from straws and plastic bags will have an impact on the numbers that will inevitably be connected in these clean-ups, there is an irony in the subsequent promotion of ‘eco-friendly’ products such as metal straws, which may in fact use more energy and resources to make. Indigenous innovations such as bamboo and water-spinach straws are of course alternative options that can be embraced. While opting out of plastic use has become the latest trend in eco-consciousness, not everyone can palate the way it is implemented. An attempt to ban straws in the National University of Singapore, for example, was met with disgust at the “top-down” manner in which it was enforced, with some seeing it as a “half-hearted attempt at appearing to care”.
Simply focusing on awareness then, especially if it seen as part of an overarching new age, zero-waste, vegan movement that has generated some hostility because of its perceived judgemental and imposing nature, may not help to reduce citizens’ impacts on the planet. There is also the matter of how much impact will come from selectively stopping the use of a single item (or two), when the rest of our lifestyle has a negative impact on the planet. The crux of the matter really is in our need to consume. Plastic is in everything, and the less we buy or consume, the less plastic we encourage producers to create and process. Fast fashion is increasingly seen as one of the main contributors to plastic waste, as is the need for the latest electronic product, phone or gadget. Unnecessary packaging that comes with online purchases adds to the waste that we dump (and rarely recycle). While freecycling groups abound online, there does not seem to be an abatement in the levels of our need to buy. A need for the highest hygiene standards and an aversion to possible contamination thwarts efforts to reduce plastic packaging at Singaporean supermarkets. Positive environmental change will require a wholesale shift in attitudes towards “germs”, convenience and consumption patterns; a move from purchasing happiness to experiencing happiness, which will thereafter result in a lower production of trash.
Beyond just what we buy (and subsequently waste), is the impact of all our other actions on a daily basis. Singapore’s CO2 emissions per capita was calculated at 12.08 tonnes in 2007; Malaysia logged 732 tonnes of emissions per capita in the same year. To put this into perspective, the figures lie in between the highest emissions records of Qatar and the Netherlands Antilles, which recorded 55.43 tonnes and 32.47 tonnes per capita respectively. On the other end of the scale are far less developed nations; Burundi at 0.02 tonnes emissions per capita and Afghanistan at 0.03 tonnes per capita. While these figures hinge on whether the nations are oil-producing or other industrial countries, have large or small populations, and their state of development, it is also a reflection of how higher income countries such as Singapore would have a higher carbon footprint. This is manifested in modes of transport (the use of personal vehicles when public transport is widely available) and home air-conditioning and temperature settings in public buildings, among others. Thus in order to reduce our overall impact on the planet, it will take more than just abstaining from a straw – there are many other steps that can be taken on a daily basis to live more sustainably.
In Malaysia, citizen action and civic movements have often driven sustainability efforts, influencing and demanding action from the government of the day. Malaysia has a phalanx of exhaustive environmental laws and regulations, but there are overlaps and loopholes between federal and state jurisdictions that can be exploited, and enforcement is lax.
In Singapore, while there are small environmental efforts by numerous NGOs, political will (or lack of it) and legislation tends to make the difference. Thus, while education, awareness and citizen action can nudge some people in the right direction, what is needed is a cohesive policy framework for waste management and recycling, coupled with enforcement of regulation, requirements and financial incentives (or punitive measures). Tax measures to either encourage green technologies and innovations or dissuade unsustainable production, as well as the inclusion of environmental costs in project planning or environmental impact assessments will provide a more accurate picture of the need for and benefits of a circular economy.
The only way to improve the global problem of plastic is for environmental stewardship by every individual, company and government on earth. That requires an understanding that helping the planet goes beyond saying no to straws and plastic bags, good though that first step may be. We all need to be more aware of the implications of what we purchase and do, and realise that every change in attitude and action on a daily basis counts as a contribution to planetary sustainability.
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Geyer, R.; Jambeck, J.R. and Lavendar K. 2017. Production, Use and Fate of all Plastics ever Made. Science Advances e1700782, 1-5.
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Lim, K.L.C. 2019. Case Study of Marine Litter in the Johor Straits and the Challenges Faced in Reducing Litter. Humanities and Social Sciences Research Programme Publication. Ministry of Education, Singapore (forthcoming).
Law, K.L. 2017. Plastics in the Marine Environment. Annual Review of Marine Science 9: 205-229.
Ocean Conservancy. 2019. The Beach and Beyond: International Coastal Cleanup 2019 Report. https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Final-2019-ICC-Report.pdf (accessed 23 Oct 2019)
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