Waste Management Needs to Move Up the Agendas of APEC and ASEAN : OPINION: Call to Action on Plastic Waste in the Oceans

Mike Rithie MRA Consulting plastic pollution oceans marine debris
© U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Mike Ritchie, director of Australian Waste Consultancy MRA Consulting Group, explains the extent of the problems posed by plastic pollution in the waterways and calls for action to tackle the problem…

Plastic was only invented 100 years ago and now is ubiquitous in our economies and lifestyles. It is also ubiquitous in our pollution. From microbeads to plastic bottles and fish nets plastic pollution is everywhere.

About 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans every year. It is estimated that there is currently one tonne of plastic in the ocean for every five tonnes of fish and if no action is taken, plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish by 2050.

The amount of plastic in the oceans has a myriad of economic and human health consequences, and there have been many solutions proposed. They range from vast booms in the ocean gyres through to plastic bag bans and substituting plastic for other materials.

Of course, all of these measures are going to have an effect, however a 2015 report “Stemming the Tide” produced by Ocean Conservancy with McKinsey found that the most effective ways to reduce ocean plastic pollution are the simplest.

To go back a few steps, plastic in oceans comes largely from the land. About 80%. Most ocean plastic pollution comes from just five countries, all in our region. In order of magnitude, China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand contribute a total of 60% of all ocean plastic.

These five countries contribute so much plastic because of illegal dumping, because their dump sites leak so much plastic into the oceans, and because their collection systems are insufficient.

Improving collection systems and landfill management are pretty straight forward. Combined with recycling plastic and thermal treatment for energy generation, we can reduce the annual ocean plastic pollution in these countries by 65%, and 45% globally. It is a matter of will and money.

The price tag is estimated at $US 5 billion per year. That investment will not just improve the quality of our oceans, but also enable the region’s economies to grow without destroying their local environment. Waste management needs to be prioritised by our and their, governments.

The Australian government needs to nudge waste management onto the agendas of APEC and ASEAN.

Our own local governments have highly transferable waste management skills. We could be building capacity and waste infrastructure in the region. Waste managers could work with local officials to demonstrate integrated waste management systems.

Stopping ocean plastic pollution is an area where Australians can contribute immensely to the region. It is work that not only benefits the environment, but allows countries to develop along a more sustainable pathway.

MRA is keen to partner with businesses, Councils and regional groups to develop waste systems and infrastructure for Asia. We are currently developing a pilot program for plastic take back in Indonesia.

Mike Ritchie is director of MRA Consulting Group. If you are interested in being involved you can get in touch with Mike via info@mraconsulting.com.au

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