Introductory on plastic waste

Dec 4, 2017

 

Plastic Waste in our seas

News about the amount of litter entering the seas, particularly plastic waste, is hitting the headlines with increasing frequency. There is justifiable cause for concern. Conservative estimates are that 350kgs of plastic is entering our seas every second (that is about 20 tons per minute). If these growth trends continue, then the amount of plastic entering the oceans of the world will double by 2045. This would not be a problem if plastic were totally inert, decomposed and became a beneficial part of the marine ecosystem, but this is not the case. Plastic does not decompose, it accumulates and can remain in the sea for centuries. This means that every minute of every day we are adding about 20 tons to the estimated 150 million tons of plastic already in the seas.

Impacts on marine Life and economies

The news media and many webpages show pictures of whales, dolphins, birds, seals, turtles and other animals which have been killed by the plastic they mistook for food and ate. Other photographs show how these same groups of animals get entangled by plastic and either become deformed by the entanglement as they grow, or they die. Millions of animals, drawn from more than 260 different species, are killed each year. Such photographs have an emotive impact, but other telling issues are that plastics affect the health of the environment and humans, have an impact on tourism and national economies. Furthermore, plastic which enters the seas has an economic value. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that from packaging materials alone the world is discarding plastic that is worth between US$ 80 and 120 billion per annum. Much of this enters the seas, but if it were collected before being lost to the oceans it could reenter the economies, create jobs, alleviate poverty and reduce the need to call upon oil to meet the growing demand for plastic.

These are among the many compelling reasons for ensuring that plastics do enter the circular economies and are not used once and then discarded to enter the seas.

Origins of debris in the sea

About 85 to 90% of plastic (including microplastics which are not discussed here) enter the sea from the land, the remainder comes from ships and other vessels at sea.

Currently, more plastic waste pours into the oceans from Asia than any other continent. Africa is the second-most polluted continent and is rapidly becoming worse. If trends continue, then Africa may overtake South East Asia within the next 20 years.

African Marine Waste Network

The African Marine Waste Network (AMWN) was formed to find solutions for the 38 coastal and island states of Africa and to promote networking within countries and across borders. Network activities began at the international conference convened by AMWN in July 2017, which drew together experts from Africa and elsewhere in the world to decide on priorities in planning the way forwards. Workshops and discussion groups dominated the conference, focused on finding solutions and concluded that the top priorities are a) to build capacity and skills across the board, including in the shipping arenas and harbours. Building capacity will be coordinated by the AMWN through a multi-institutional “African Waste Academy”, b) promote education and awareness programmes in schools, businesses, municipalities, civil society, c) quantify the level of waste in Africa using modern technologies and innovative science. Such quantification will set measurable baselines upon which to develop strategies and monitor the impact of strategic actions, including clean-ups, d) harness the circular economy, with a focus on developing sustainable, viable economic enterprises in impoverished areas, and e) build a powerful network to share ideas, promote education and awareness as well as advocate for actions and implementation of appropriate steps.

These actions will collectively help the countries of Africa meet the UN Sustainability Development Goals, particularly SDG 14.1.

Everyone has a responsibility

Everyone who cares about our estuaries and seas should be taking active steps to reduce pollution of the seas. To find out more go to www.africanwastenetwork.org.za or www.sst.org.za

9980 Workshop in progress at the African Marine Waste Conference.
Dr A (Tony) Ribbink is CEO of the Sustainable Seas Trust which is the organization that is running the African Marine Waste Network. Articles on marine litter, particularly plastic waste will feature in Maritime Review Africa.

9279 Panel discussion at the African Marine Waste Conference.

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