Saturday, 28 March 2020

Yes, ocean plastic pollution is serious. No, Plastic ban will not help!

By Jabbar Moradi | Prague Daily Monitor |
20 November 2019

Scientists are often good at spotting the problems but when it comes to large scale solutions, they might offer cures that are worse than the disease. After all they are human beings and might fall into the same logical and emotional traps as the rest of us. Here, I will try to convince you that the last thing we should call for is an emotionally motivated scientist with a solution that is more of a moral stand than a pragmatic resolution. Plastic pollution is one such field of confusion. Not because ocean plastic pollution is a lie, nor that it does not cause any harm, but simply because the source of the problem spotted, and the cures given are not on the same page.

During the last few years, scientists from the top Czech universities have been invited to share their concern, about plastic pollution, on TV or other media platforms (for instance here). I have had a chance to personally discuss the matter with one such recognized and very sharp scientist. In my eyes their arguments could be boiled down into two main ones. First, and the main, argument is that the scale of ocean plastic pollution is beyond imagination, and it is harmful to the other forms of life and we are responsible for it. Hence, we should start from ourselves and ban single use plastic items. Second argument goes as ‘of course we in the west are not but a minor contributor to pollution, but banning plastic is a lesson for China as a main polluter to get ashamed, or just wake up and learn what to do; with such a ban we teach China how to behave!’

One thing to, always, keep in mind is that getting the facts right is just half of the homework, and as far as the cure is not proportionate to the facts, the problem of concern, e.g., plastic pollution, will remain or even grow bigger. Media is also very careful with the slogans used to show the seriousness of the matter, like “the fight against plastic”, but that just makes the language an inflammatory language and nothing more.

Let us agree that the concerns about ocean plastic pollution, and its scale, are undeniable. What that means is that we have a serious problem going on in the oceans. What it does not mean is that all the countries should be blamed regardless of how much they play a role, or worse its citizens put under pressure (lets imagine just a few workers of a plastic-straw-production-unit and their families). This is worrisome. Often scientists and, more often, activists ignore the scale at which different countries contribute to the pollution. Their logic sounds like the following. ‘They (scientists, activists, and concerned normal citizens) hate the plastic pollution in the oceans, which we all do (I hope!). Because of that hate, they are inclined to hate the concept of plastic wherever they see it even if it is not going to touch the oceans ever. They want an immediate action or else we are all immoral and irresponsible beings. Immediate action is a ban on unnecessary plastics as a first step.’ This idea overlooks the whole problem hence ignores proper solutions that might right in front of our eyes.

I mentioned the scale of plastic pollution, but since 1970 that the issue was publicized, we had no clue of its scale nor we knew who is doing what and why that might matter. That was the case for more than 40 years! Do not worry! In a recent study, published in the very prestigious magazine of Science, a group of scientists tried to calculate the main contributors to the ocean plastic pollution, first research of its kind to give an estimate and a scale for plastic pollution and contribution levels (published in 2015, full text here). They calculated the influential factors (e.g., amount of waste produced, percentage of plastic in the waste, percentage of mismanaged waste, and population growth) in the amount of plastic released into the oceans by different countries and have modeled a future pattern for short- and long-term projection of possible scenarios.

Their finding does not justify the plastic ban in Europe. To the contrary, it shows that the activists and concerned parties are beating the wrong horse. The researchers found that of the top 20 countries that contribute to almost 83% of the oceanic plastic pollution, none of them are an EU member country. Even if one considers the whole EU as a united body in its contribution, their numbers adds up to 1.1% contribution and they will collectively stand at the 18th position in the table. Same is the case for the United states with a rough upper contribution of 1% as the 20th country in the list (see the figure below).

United States has the second highest waste production per person, right after Sri Lanka, while has the most efficient waste management system amongst the top 20 countries listed by this study, with only 2% mismanaged waste. Thailand, China, Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and North Korea have mismanaged wastes ranged from 75% in Thailand up to 90% in the case of North Korea. In terms of plastic marine debris, while the United States has the second highest waste production per person per day, it has the lowest contribution of roughly 1%. China, on the other hand, while being modest in its produced average waste per person, contributes an estimated 28% to the ocean plastic pollution. China (27.8%), together with Indonesia (10.2%), Philippines (5.9%), and Vietnam (5.7%) cover almost half of the plastic pollution globally and 60% of the top 20 countries’ contribution.
The key point to keep in mind is that the most efficient waste management systems are located in the United States as well as EU countries. Waste management is exactly the solution IF the real concern is ocean plastic pollution and not hatred of plastic per se! Just imagine the achievement if the top 20 countries improve their waste management efficiencies and lower their mismanaged waste to half of what it is now. We could see a reduction of the 83% to half of what it is now.

The bad news is that, these researchers’ model prediction, based on population growth and a few additional factors with a “business as usual scenario” predicts at least a doubling of the waste entering the oceans if no change in waste management occurs. That is to say, to any sharp mind it is obvious that no change in waste management is very dangerous and undesirable. It is easy to imagine how asinine it is if any of the western countries focused on plastic ban on their sides to solve this issue. A focus on 1% of the problem by the EU countries. An achievement so insignificant that shows its stupidity if anyone takes the numbers above moderately serious.

Even if all the 1% in the EU consists of only unnecessary plastic items, plastic ban solves only 1% of the problem! Let alone that “unnecessary” plastic items is such a vague category! So even if we accept the first argument, that “we should start from ourselves”, which is a fair stand. The solution is “more efficient waste management”. As for the second argument, it sounds to me that “plastic ban as a lesson to China”, is more of a moral statement with a mindset divorced from reality. I do not think that plastic (straw) ban is what China or other big polluters need to do. To ban single use plastic items while keeping the mismanaged plastic the way it is sounds foolish to say the least. The resolution of the EU governors and activists is so unrealistic and so divorced from facts that strikes me as if they do not really care about the solution but just hate “plastic” and want to keep Europe as clean as their backyards. They fancy an “unnecessary-plastic” free environment.

Let me tell you a short story about “unnecessary” plastic items! A dear friend of mine, soon to be a PhD ecologist and concerned passionately with plastic pollution, while drinking his favorite coffee was arguing that items like plastic covered cucumber and fruits are not justified at all. He might be just correct but I could not get his logic because he prepares his morning coffee using coffee pods. He fancies making coffee that way almost every morning! Ironic!

Jabbar Moradi holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences from Charles University in Prague. He moved to the Czech Republic for his Ph.D. 6 years ago and decided to stay in our beautiful Prague! Jabbar is a part-time contributor to the Prague Daily Monitor, and studies/writes on miscellaneous topics including Environmental issues, Political Philosophy, Ethics and Society, among others.