The Perils of Plastic Pollution
Plastics are found in the products we use every day: the toys we give our children, the clothing we wear, the disposable cups we drink from, the automobiles we make, the straws we use, the list goes on. Cheap and easy to make, plastic goods and plastic production have exploded in recent years. Yet the junked cars, the used straws and cups, they all end up somewhere, perhaps in a landfill, or perhaps drifting in the wind. 91% of plastic goods are not recycled. Most have found their way to rivers, lakes, and oceans, and over time break down into tiny microscopic particles of plastic. Microplastics are everywhere, even in the deepest sea floor sediments and in the Arctic. They can originate in small form from toothpaste or makeup, or can be derived from larger pieces of plastic, which over time break down into small particles.
Not very long ago (Sept. 8, 2018), a giant 2,000 foot long tube was launched from San Francisco to be towed to a suitable site. The brainchild of a young 24-year-old Dutchman named Boyan Slat, it is intended to trap some of the ever-increasing tons of plastic polluting our oceans. To be sure California lends a more sympathetic ear to pollution problems than does Washington or the Federal Government these days.
Researchers have sought to determine the extent of plastic pollution and tested water samples from cities and towns on five continents. The results: microscopic plastic particles were present in 83%. Ironically samples that tested positive included the US Capitol building and the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, as well as the Trump Grill in New York. Researchers say these plastic particles are also likely in foods prepared with water, such as pasta and bread.
Every day, more plastics are added to the world’s waters. From coastal regions alone, between 5.3 million and 14 million tons of plastic find their way to the oceans each year. By 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean is expected to ‘outweigh the fish’, says Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. Currently estimated to be 150 million tons, they take a very long time to biodegrade – an estimated 450 years to never.
Almost 700 species that we are aware of have been affected by plastic pollution, ranging from tiny creatures to the largest, and some are already endangered. Whales have already fallen victim to plastic contamination. This past June, a whale in Thailand died from ingesting more than 80 plastic bags. And a sperm whale was found dead on a beach in Spain with 29 kilos of plastic in its stomach.
Australian researchers studying a large sample of sea turtles recently reported in Nature that half of the baby sea turtles had stomachs filled with plastic. They calculated that turtles have a 50% probability of death after ingesting 14 pieces of plastic, and that younger turtles are more likely to be harmed.
Can plastics affect human health too? The answer is ‘yes,’ and in various ways, depending on the kind of plastic. Diethylhexyl, found in some plastics, is a carcinogen. Bisphenol-A (BPA), present in some plastic bottles and food packaging materials, can interfere with human hormonal functioning and can be ingested through water or from eating contaminated fish. Some toxins in plastics are known to cause birth defects, cancers, and immune system problems. Cadmium, mercury, bromine and lead are highly toxic, although now restricted or banned in plastic manufacture in many countries, some for several decades. Yet a recent 2018 study examining the water of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, found levels of these chemicals sometimes beyond the accepted limits under EU law. The findings were a testament to how long plastic pollution remains in the environment, the metals being released as the plastics break down over time.
It is very difficult to study the exact impact of plastic pollution on humans because plastic pollution is so widespread that ‘there are almost no unexposed subjects’, notes a researcher.
Norway has managed to recycle a remarkable 97% of its plastic bottles. It achieved this by installing plastic bottle machines that return money in exchange. The UK is considering adopting a similar strategy.
Denmark recycles far more plastic bags than the United States: an average Dane uses four single-use bags per year, an American almost one per day. How do they do it? Denmark adopted a tax on plastic bags in 1993 and the bag is not free – it costs about 50 cents, part of the money going to the tax and part to the store. The effect has been a reduction in the sale of bags by over 40% over the last 25 years. One can only hope that more countries will follow.
The United States currently recycles only about 9% of plastics. According to an EPA study this past August, the U.S. recycling rate actually decreased in 2015. Could the Scandinavian techniques help? Only a handful of states in the U.S. have passed laws regarding deposit machines; adding laws requiring a charge for plastic bags or a tax, as the City of Chicago did, is not impossible.
For years China has been importing much of the world’s scraps, including 40% of U.S. recyclables. But in 2018, China placed a ban on imports of plastics, mixed paper, and other materials. Recycled plastics from the U.S. to China dropped 92% in the first five months of the year. California may be especially hard hit, as it had been exporting about a third of its recyclables, amounting to 15 million tons in 2016. 62% of those exports went to China. It is unclear whether the U.S. will be able to cope with the increased influx of recyclables on home territory.
Sadly, even if the U.S. and all developed countries had sufficient machines and facilities to reach Norway’s 97% level of plastic bottle recycling, it would not be enough to save the oceans. This is because the bulk of ocean plastic pollution comes from developing countries who often lack recycling and waste pickup infrastructure. In 2010, one researcher estimated that half of the world’s plastic pollution was generated by just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.
The top polluters were again listed for Earth Day 2018, by quantity of annual mismanaged plastic waste. The top six:
1 China: 1.32 – 3.52 Million Metric Tons (MMT) / year
2 Indonesia: 0.48 – 1.29 MMT/year
3 Philippines: 0.28 – 0.75 MMT/year
4 Vietnam: 0.28 – 0.73 MMT/year
5 Sri Lanka: 0.24 – 0.64 MMT/year
6 Thailand: 0.15 – 0.41 MMT/year
The statistics also showed a percentage of mismanaged plastic waste. Eight countries had over 80% mismanaged plastic waste: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Burma, and North Korea. These are developing nations and they often do not have a proper waste and recycling infrastructure. In the Philippines, recycling is sometimes done slowly and laboriously by hand picking from dump yards. Not surprisingly, much is washed away to sea. The Pasig River that flows through Manila carries an estimated 72,000 tons of plastic downstream each year, and the river has been declared “biologically dead” since 1990. Of course, developed nations could provide aid to help create a recycling infrastructure where it is lacking. But such foreign aid without educating the public of its necessity is unlikely.
Then there is the intriguing possibility of actually scavenging ocean plastic. Boyan Slat’s giant flexible tube, appended on its underside with a curtain barrier, will be shaped into a U to trap the plastic, which a sister ship will retrieve for recycling and safe disposal. Due to ocean currents, the plastic collects in the relatively stagnant ocean pools between them easing the job of Mr. Slat’s device. The Ocean Cleanup, Slat’s foundation, displays five such sites in the world’s oceans: one each in the North and South Atlantic and Pacific, and one in the south Indian Ocean. They claim the device can clean up 90% of the floating waste. Everyone is rooting for him.
In the mean time, there are a few things we can do each day, which, collectively could have a positive impact:
Ordering fewer products online could help, as packaging is a huge source of pollution and often includes bubble wrap, made of low-density polyethylene. It is not the easiest form of plastic to recycle and it comprises 20% of global plastic waste. Bringing ones own bags to a local store would be far less taxing on the environment.
Minimizing foam cups and takeout containers would be highly beneficial – they are made from polystyrene, which is difficult to recycle.
Avoiding the use of straws, when possible, would aid sea creatures. Straws, made of polypropylene usually end up in the ocean. Polypropylene comprises 19% of global plastic waste.
Reusing and recycling as much as possible is a mantra that cannot be repeated too often.
Collectively, we could make a difference. And if we can also pool our resources to help developing countries recycle, then perhaps we can save our oceans, the turtles, the whales, and even, us.
Author’s note: This article first appeared in CounterPunch.org.
A liveable future for all is possible, if we take urgent climate action
A major UN “report of reports” from the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), outlines the many options that can be taken now, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change.The study, “Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report”, released on Monday following a week-long IPCC session in Interlaken, brings into sharp focus the losses and damages experienced now, and expected to continue into the future, which are hitting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems especially hard.
Temperatures have already risen to 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a consequence of more than a century of burning fossil fuels, as well as unequal and unsustainable energy and land use. This has resulted in more frequent and intense extreme weather events that have caused increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world.
Climate-driven food and water insecurity is expected to grow with increased warming: when the risks combine with other adverse events, such as pandemics or conflicts, they become even more difficult to manage.
Time is short, but there is a clear path forward
If temperatures are to be kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, deep, rapid, and sustained greenhouse gas emissions reductions will be needed in all sectors this decade, the reports states. Emissions need to go down now, and be cut by almost half by 2030, if this goal has any chance of being achieved.
The solution proposed by the IPCC is “climate resilient development,” which involves integrating measures to adapt to climate change with actions to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in ways that provide wider benefits.
Examples include access to clean energy, low-carbon electrification, the promotion of zero and low carbon transport, and improved air quality: the economic benefits for people’s health from air quality improvements alone would be roughly the same, or possibly even larger, than the costs of reducing or avoiding emissions
“The greatest gains in wellbeing could come from prioritizing climate risk reduction for low-income and marginalized communities, including people living in informal settlements,” said Christopher Trisos, one of the report’s authors. “Accelerated climate action will only come about if there is a many-fold increase in finance. Insufficient and misaligned finance is holding back progress.”
Governments are key
The power of governments to reduce barriers to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, through public funding and clear signals to investors, and scaling up tried and tested policy measures, is emphasized in the report.
Changes in the food sector, electricity, transport, industry, buildings, and land-use are highlighted as important ways to cut emissions, as well as moves to low-carbon lifestyles, which would improve health and wellbeing.
“Transformational changes are more likely to succeed where there is trust, where everyone works together to prioritize risk reduction, and where benefits and burdens are shared equitably,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee.
“This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”
UN chief announces plan to speed up progress
In a video message released on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the report as a “how-to guide to defuse the climate time-bomb.”
Climate action is needed on all fronts: “everything, everywhere, all at once,” he declared, in a reference to this year’s Best Film Academy Award winner.
The UN chief has proposed to the G20 group of highly developed economies a “Climate Solidarity Pact,” in which all big emitters would make extra efforts to cut emissions, and wealthier countries would mobilize financial and technical resources to support emerging economies in a common effort to ensure that global temperatures do not rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Mr. Guterres announced that he is presenting a plan to boost efforts to achieve the Pact through an Acceleration Agenda, which involves leaders of developed countries committing to reaching net zero as close as possible to 2040, and developing countries as close as possible to 2050.
The Agenda calls for an end to coal, net-zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed countries and 2040 for the rest of the world, and a stop to all licensing or funding of new oil and gas, and any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves.
These measures, continued Mr. Guterres, must accompany safeguards for the most vulnerable communities, scaling up finance and capacities for adaptation and loss and damage, and promoting reforms to ensure Multilateral Development Banks provide more grants and loans, and fully mobilize private finance.
Looking ahead to the upcoming UN climate conference, due to be held in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December, Mr. Guterres said that he expects all G20 leaders to have committed to ambitious new economy-wide nationally determined contributions encompassing all greenhouse gases, and indicating their absolute emissions cuts targets for 2035 and 2040.
Journey to net-zero ‘picks up pace’
Achim Steiner, Administrator, of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) pointed to signs that the journey to net-zero is picking up pace as the world looks to the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference or COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.
“That includes the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S., described ‘the most significant legislation in history to tackle the climate crisis’ and the European Union’s latest Green Deal Industrial Plan, a strategy to make the bloc the home of clean technology and green jobs,” he said.
“Now is the time for an era of co-investment in bold solutions. As the narrow window of opportunity to stop climate change rapidly closes, the choices that governments, the private sector, and communities now make — or do not make – will go down in history.”
A Treaty to Preserve Oceans – And Our World
There is cause for celebration in our climatically distressed world for a treaty of historic proportions has been signed by the UN member states. It is the culmination of 15 years of talks and discussions.
Vital to the preservation of 30 percent of our earth, i.e. land and ocean, the oceans treaty broke many political barriers. The EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius applauded the event saying it was a crucial step towards preserving marine life and its essential biodiversity for generations to come.
The UN Secretary General commended the delegates, his spokesperson calling the agreement a “victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing oceanhealth, now and for generations to come.”
The real problem is the oceans belong to no one — and thus available to everyone — because the exclusive economic zones of countries end beyond 200 nautical miles (370 kms) from their coastlines.
These high seas are threatened by overfishing, man-made pollution including damaging plastics, and also climate change. People are unaware that oceans create half the oxygen we breathe, and help in containing global warming by absorbing the carbon dioxide released by human activities — one can think of all the coal and wood fires, particularly in developing countries, and the coal-fired power stations everywhere among other uses of fossil fuels.
The fact is we have to value the environment that nurtures us for the consequences of our disregard can in the final analysis destroy life itself. As it stands, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports in its 2022 Living Planet Index a 69 percent decrease in monitored populations since 1970, a mere half century. Their data analyzed 32,000 species.
As the apex species, such a loss forces humans to assume responsibility. It rests on each and everyone of us from individuals to governments to corporate entities, and across the spectrum of human activity.
The treaty furnishes legal tools to assist in creating protected areas for marine life; it also requires environmental assessments for intended commercial activity … like deep sea mining for example. The nearly 200 countries involved also signed a pledge to share ocean resources. All in all, it has been a triumph of common sense over the individual greed of people and nations.
So it is that the treaty has made possible the 30×30 target, namely, to protect 30 percent of oceans by 2030. Now comes the hard work of organizing the protection. Who will police the areas? Who will pay for it?
Environmental Crisis in South Asian Countries
During thetwenty-first century, South Asian countries have been facing and dealing with enormous problems. But the environmental crisis is one of the major and most emerging issues. South Asia is the southern part of the continent Asia, which is also known as the Asian societies. Mainly consist of eight countries India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sir Lanka, and Bangladesh. Most of the environmental problem has been started after the 1960s due to high economic activities, population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and poverty. The combined effects of all these factors caused the situation more complex because of less management of negative and deviant behavior in economic activities. South Asian countries are the developing region that mainly constitutes middle-income countries struggling to flourish their economies and to cope with challenges of political and environmental sustainability, although they are still yet facing many environmental crises which are highly interactive, interlinked with human activities and also human life which it is the need of the hour to be addressed.
Population Density and Population Pressure
Population growth is one of the major elements which play an important role in environmental crises. As all the South Asian developing countries have an extensive density of populations such as India which considers the world second most populated country after China, because the growing population in all South Asian countries, it’s put tremendous population strain on natural and environmental resources such as increase the extraction of resources from the environment influence negatively in our environment. The Intergovernmental Panel Discussion (IPCC) on climate change says that most of the environmental crises are attributed to human activities. The population of Pakistan is also increasing at the rate of 1.9 % annual changes and the population of other South Asian countries is also not up to the mark, but increasing day by day which adversely affects the economy and the natural setting of the environment.
Climate change is also a major problem. South Asian developing counties are vulnerable to climate change-related disasters. The history of Pakistan, and Bangladesh showed how much they suffered due to climate flood disasters. Pakistan and India are facing the brunt of extreme weather almost every year. Being affected by environmental problems severely influence economic activities in the summer of 2022 due to “Heat Waves” in India and Pakistan, “Flood Crisis” in Pakistan last year affected the largest region about one–third of the whole country. Melting glaciers in Pakistan, almost twenty glacier bodies in Nepal, and twenty-five in Bhutan are so unsafe glacial water bodies. Land erosion in India, and Nepal land erosion, and land sliding. With rising sea levels in Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan it is expected that by 2050 most of them swallowed by the sea. This climate condition is not new for this region, according to the World Bank Report 750 million people across South Asian societies are impacted by the last almost 20 years. In Afghanistan, farmers face climate-induced drought, and nearly 19 million Afghans are unable to feed themselves and almost 5 million people across India and Bangladesh. According to the climate change risk index Bangladesh and Pakistan ranked sixth and seventh while India ranked fourth among them respectively. A recent report of intergovernmental on climate change called “Code Red for Humanity” by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, it is predicted that in the next two decades, global warming will increase up to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Almost all Asian societies adversely face the problem of pollution associated with indoor and outdoor elements which may be the source of pollution. With the increase of demographic pressure and urbanization, pollution is also considered a vital concern in South Asian countries. Due to industrialization, transportation, burning of coal, and biomass, excessive use of metals, and soil depletion of natural resources and minerals merely falls under the category of pollution. According to the report of the Air Quality Life Index Pakistan is the fourth most pollution-causing country in the world and India is the second most polluted country in the world and number one in Bangladesh. Excess methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur, and insoluble and soluble materials emitted by vehicles and industries are harmful effects on humans such as lung cancer, asthma, and water-borne diseases. It badly influences plants and animals.
Water scarcity is a major concern in almost every region. South Asian countries have become water-default regions due to population exploitation, and unplanned urbanization. Almost 90- 95 of water is consumed by agriculture and industries, and there is insufficient storage and a wasteful irrigation method. Per capita, water availability is less than the world average and 4.5% of freshwater resources availability. Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan face varying degrees of water scarcity. Groundwater depletion caused by irrigation, agriculture runoff, industries, and the unregulated release of sewage needs a major concern. Along with scarcity of water quality and quantity, both are also affected by the reduction in the quantity of water because of the recession of glaciers and disruption in the monsoon.
Furthermore, global warming is also a main issue that is observed globally it is specifically due to human activities primarily the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, and petroleum, fire burning, and along with the emission of harmful gases. South Asian countries are the major source of carbon dioxide, so it is a crucial component in global warming. However many South Asian countries implement a tax on the use of carbon-related components, a form of small fiscal policy to reduce the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.
In addition to all these South Asia approximately uses only 5.9 % of global energy resources excluding the non- commercial energy resources. South Asian counties have increased the demand for energy in the last few decades, increasing demand by up to 50% since 2000. The rising energy demand is induced by population growth and the manufacturing sector. All the south Asian countries have increased the demand for electricity on average by more than five percent annually over the past two decades and are expected for the future that requires more than double by 2050. More than two third of the energy is imported. So it put pressure to increase cost recovery if the demand increase. In South Asia, disruptions due to conflict among other countries adversely impact fuel imports and put greater pressure on the government to ensure the security of their energy supply.
South Asian countries are major part and contributors to the world economy. Due to the crisis, economic activities were destroyed and diminished in many regions, because of damage to productivity and infrastructure, security threats, and mass migration, as the results growth rate declined and the world economy gets affected. Globally, all the economies of the world somehow depend upon each other for trade. To facilitate this connection it is necessary to maintain a balance. There are many organizations are working in South Asian countries to control the environmental crisis, such as the intergovernmental organization of South Asia Co-operative Environment Program (SACEP). Climate Action Network of South Asia, South Asian form for the environment. So the main purpose of all these organizations is to provide support, protection, and management in context to contribute in terms of sustainable development, along with issues of economic and social development. In addition to all these, urgent action is needed to curb all the challenges. The most immediate and pragmatic step to cope with the challenges is to make a collective UN committee for collaboration among the countries, reduce the global emission of harmful gases, decarbonize the energy sector, educate people to spread awareness among people start campaigns related to the protection of environmental at county level, uses of renewable resources, new policy initiation, formulation, and Implementation.
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