Last update: 11-Dec-2013 5:04 pm
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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The biodegradable myth
Biodegradable bags do not degrade. They simply break down into smaller components and remain in the environment, poisoning the marine life.
Peter J Kershaw, co-chair of the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), made this point as he addressed a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) media seminar during UNEP’s second Global Conference on Land-Ocean Connections (GLOC) at Hilton Rose Hall Resort and Spa, Montego Bay, Jamaica, earlier this month.
The bags are not environmentally-friendly as consumers are led to believe.
In fact, Kershaw said, such bags are contributing to the emerging global threat of microplastic pollution.
A UNEP emerging issues report on microplastics said plastic particles with a maximum size of 5 mm are considered to be microplastics.
Kershaw said when a plastic bag is broken into the smaller particles it retains its original polymer properties. He explained that these microplastics are a major challenge for the environment because of their small size, as it is difficult to remove them from the marine environment.
He said there is enough evidence to show that marine litter causes significant social and economic damage to many industries, such as fisheries and tourism.
However, the full impact of microplastics on the marine environment, he said, is still being assessed.
The UNEP report stated that microplastics come from many sources such as personal care products like toothpaste, skin care products and synthetic textiles.
“They tend not to be filtered out during sewage treatment, but tend to be released directly to the ocean, lakes and rivers,” the report stated.
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Kershaw said tremendous pressure is being placed on the marine environment from growing coastal populations that are contributing to marine litter and coastal pollution.
“The only way we could approach this is to stop marine litter from getting there. The problem is we cannot get it out without damaging the eco-system. It is a global issue, it is a trans-boundary issue. We need partnerships,” Kershaw said.
He said marine litter is a priority issue that requires urgent attention by all governments.
Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance and co-founder of the Plastic Disclosure project, who also addressed the media conference, expressed concern that the Plastic Soup — an large area of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean — is growing.
He said, “The soup is pretty saturated and it is increasing.”
Woodring said a huge amount of plastic does not get recycled and often ends up in various oceans.
Humans, he said, do not realise the devastating impact plastics have on health and the environment.
“Plastic is like a cancer. It may not kill us immediately but it is something that will affect us for a lifetime. It has an impact on tourism and water quality,” he said.
Over 700 species are affected by plastic in the ocean, Woodring said.
He explained that small islands are especially vulnerable to marine litter that may not even originate in the Caribbean but is brought to our shores by the ocean currents.
Additionally, he said, a major problem affecting islands is the absence of sufficient landfill space.
He also contended that small islands do not have clear recycling policies and it is harder to “get rid of this stuff whether it comes by sea or by land.”
Woodring suggested that islands that could afford to, should consider establishing recycling plants and look at the standardisation of, or allow the transferring of trash to another country.
Andrew Russell, director of Plastic Disclosure project (Hong Kong) said 90 per cent of marine litter is plastics and 90 per cent of that comes from land-based sources.
“It is our behaviour, yes it is our waste management procedures. There is a need for clean up, there is a need for smarter products,” he said.
Russell said a more collaborative effort is needed to control marine litter and curb its devastating effects.
Hugh Shim, executive director of the Montego Bay Marine Park Trust, told journalists during a tour of the park that marine litter has caused significant damage to the corals in the park area.
He also a proposal has been submitted to ban boats from entering the marine park because they are also adding to marine pollution and damaging the coral reef.
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