“Can you imagine,” asked ASEAN Deputy Secretary-General Vongthep Arthakaivalvatee, “80% of marine debris goes to the ocean from land?”
“That is the future of humankind,” he added. "What kind of earth will we be leaving for the next generation, if we do not take action now?"
This, and other similarly sobering statistics about the forlorn state of our oceans were some of the key takeaways from the first ASEAN Conference on Reducing Marine Debris in ASEAN Region in Phuket this November.
Together, they highlighted one inconvenient truth - that in the course of ASEAN’s breathtaking economic progress, much of the environment has been sacrificed. And with many of the region’s key policy-makers gathered in Phuket, a sense of newfound resolve was being formed.
"It is agreed that most ASEAN countries are developing countries and so there has been some environmental impact due to development,” said General Surasak Karnjanarak, Thailand’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister. "However, ASEAN countries have now committed to undertake environmentally friendly actions and take sustainable development seriously."
Problems Piling Up
At the nearby fishing village of Koh Panyi, nested amidst the gorgeous limestone rocks of the Andaman Sea, residents gather together regularly to clear up the plastic that piles up on their waters and their shores.
"Today is a big cleaning day, we are all coming together to help clean Panyi island,” says Malee Samurtsaran, a teacher on the island.
“Koh Panyi is a tourist attraction. If there is a lot of garbage, it does not look good - the tourists are not impressed with the waste, so we need to collect the garbage. The problem is, many of these tourists themselves leave lots of waste.”
Tourism has been a blessing for ASEAN, but when it comes to plastic pollution, it has also been a bit of a curse. Many once-pristine beaches here are now littered with bottles, bags, and pieces of glass.
"We were shocked when we saw huge amounts of marine debris, plastic bags in the sea for one or two kilometres long,” says Dr Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a professor at Kasetsert University.
60% of all the plastic in the ocean comes from 5 Asian countries, and Thailand is one of them. For the experts gathered at the conference, the implications are wide-ranging and highly troubling.
"It’s clear now that this region is probably the single largest contributor of plastic litter into the marine environment in the world, which means that if we want to solve the marine litter problem as a global challenge, we have to solve it in this region,” says Jerker Tamelander, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Coral Reef Unit.
"Much marine litter looks like things that marine life might eat, you have turtles or fish or dolphins ingesting plastic bags, and its obviously not good for their intestinal systems. It smothers coral reefs, damages mangroves,” he added.
Both Dr Thon and Mr. Tamelander stressed that this was not simply an animal rights or environmental problem. With microplastics being ingested by fish, there is a growing threat of plastic entering our diets - and therefore our bodies - via seafood.
A Sea of Solutions
But the conference was far from being all doom and gloom. Instead, it was notable for the imagination of its participants, who seemed energized rather than daunted at the prospect of tackling this challenge.
"Tackling marine debris and plastic debris is actually a wonderful opportunity for innovation,” says Ashwin Subramanian, the Singaporean CEO of Gone Adventurin’, a consultancy that is trying to push the concept of a circular economy, i.e. a world without waste.
"It’s a great space for young people to get into, especially young scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs. We’re seeing people from Indonesia, India, Philippines, coming up with some really creative interesting economically viable technologies to recycle low value plastics to turn it into something more useful,” he said.
The circular economy was getting a strong push from it’s proponents at the conference, and one of them, Jenna Jambeck, a professor of the University of Georgia, explained the concept.
"What we need to think about is how to make our whole economic system more circular and think about designing products and systems where we capture the value in our materials at their end of life,” she said. "I work on developing waste management systems so if we actually think about those as material management systems and capture that material for value, that’s another way that we can really make a change on this issue.”
Driving home Mr Subramanian’s point, those present were given a first-hand demonstration by JW Marriott, the conference venue, of how creative thinking can transform the world around us. The Marriott has hired a company called Generation Water to produce all it’s drinking water…from thin air.
“It all started in 2015,” says Matthew Kohler, one of the founders. “We were walking along the beach in Koh Samui on holiday and we just really saw the negative impacts of single use plastic that had just been walked up onto the beach. It really struck a chord with us of being a tourist on a beautiful pristine beach and witnessing the destructiveness that single use plastic can cause to a stroll along the beach."
"We were familiar with creating water from air, and we started Generation Water in 2016, shortly after that holiday. And now we’ve got a solution where our water generations are producing 4000 liters every single day made purely from the air."
For more information:
Satwant Kaur, [email protected], +66817001376