Wednesday April 24, 2024

Plastic peril

By Reza Samad
January 28, 2019

Plastic was invented about 150 years ago. But what was then an innocuous and convenient material is now raising havoc for marine life. Estimates reveal that more than 40 percent of plastic is used only once while nine million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year.

A plastic bag is useful for only about 15 minutes, after which it is discarded without much thought. Scientists estimate that plastic takes at least 450 years to biodegrade into its constituent molecules.

Plastic production, which has now exponentially increased throughout the world, was estimated at 448 million tonnes by 2015, most of which descends to the ocean bed. Meanwhile, micro-plastics result in large-scale accumulation along beaches and in oceans, endangering marine life, especially crustaceans that ingest them owing to their minute size. In addition, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags to be the jellyfish that they eat. As a result, these bags get stuck in their digestive tracts, resulting in an excruciating, slow death.

We in Karachi are no less when it comes to polluting our own water bodies as our beaches are covered with litter. Unfortunately, more than half of all debris found at Seaview Beach comprises plastic. Over 50 kilogrammes/kilometre of waste is found across our most visited seashore, especially during the holiday season when the footfall surges. In a beach clean-up activity conducted in September 2018 on the International Coastal Clean-up Day, a beverage company helped collect 535 kg of waste, covering an area of 300,000 square metres. As alarming as it sounds, the waste that was collected mostly consisted of plastic.

Single-use plastic, which mainly comprises packaging material, is polluting seas across the world. Polystyrene, which is used to manufacture disposable plastic-foam cups and insulation material, is the most difficult plastic item to recycle. This is why we need to think twice before opting for single-use plastic items, let alone recycling them. Kenya has banned plastic bags, so why can’t we? Whatever happened to the jute and fabric bags used for grocery shopping in the past?

Furthermore, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are the easiest to recycle, which should make us at least consider collecting them separately for recycling purposes. Given our blatant disregard for the wellbeing of our own beaches, we might even discard PET bottles that are strewn across them.

Norway recovers 97 percent of its plastic bottles through machines installed at supermarkets. If the same model is applied here, it could work wonders. However, we need to begin by controlling this throwaway culture and implementing a circular-economy model where everything is recycled. This leads us to some basic questions. First, do we even need to use unnecessary plastics such as straws as frequently as we do? Should we randomly scatter litter in the way that we do?

Globally, around 18 percent of plastic is recycled, with the highest contribution by Europe, which stands at 30 percent. Although we have a few entities in Pakistan that recycle trash, there is still a long way to go given our current state.

Likewise, the issue of discarded ghost nets threatens the seas of Sindh and Balochistan, making crabs, fish, tortoises and dolphins utterly vulnerable. Fishing boats regularly visit areas such as Keamari, Baba and Bhit islands, Rehri Goth, Ibrahim Hyderi and Shams Pir, for their catch. There is a growing use of monofilament nets that are made of plastic/fibre, which when disposed of in the sea usually become irretrievable. Last year alone, up to seven tonnes of ghost nets was retrieved from Sandspit Beach. Fortunately, there are some NGOs working towards tackling this issue. But a collective and more aggressive approach is needed.

Our plastic problem will not spare us if we don’t adopt responsible means of waste disposal before the world witnesses another garbage patch outside Karachi, after the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Our disposal methods need to be more effective at the individual level because charity begins at home.

The writer is the founder and president of the Pakistan Life Saving Foundation (PALS Rescue).