Southeast Asia Ripe For New Approaches to Microplastic Glut, Climate Change

A commentary by Dan Southerland
2019-08-26
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Plastic waste along a river bank in the Indonesia capital Jakarta, August 1, 2019.
Plastic waste along a river bank in the Indonesia capital Jakarta, August 1, 2019.
AFP

Early this month, the Google Science Fair awarded its grand prize to an Irish teenager for devising a method to remove microplastics from our oceans.

According to The Irish Times, Fionn Ferreira uses magnets to extract microplastics from bodies of water.

Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including plastic bottles, textiles, straws, and larger pieces of plastic that break down into microplastic pieces less than five millimeters long.

Experts estimate that it takes 200 some years for polypropylene plastic straws to break down.

“As they break down, they have the ability to attract and absorb more pollutants like BPA, which is a known endocrine disrupter,” says Sam Athey, a Canadian expert on the subject.

Fionn Ferreira has now become a “wunderkind,” a term used to describe people who accomplish a great deal at an early age.

He also joins the ranks of a growing number of young people who are expressing their concern over the degradation of our natural environment.

Best known among those campaigning to raise awareness of climate change, or global warming, is Greta Thunberg, 16. In August 2018 at the age of 15, Thunberg began protesting outside Sweden’s parliament for immediate action to deal with climate change.

Experts say that climate change has caused rising sea levels and exacerbated the impact of water pollution on marine life and vital coral reefs.

In a recent article on climate change, The Economist magazine adds that while forecasts of sea-level rise are “vexed with uncertainties and divergences, there is a consensus that the rate is accelerating as the world warms up.”

A need to focus on Southeast Asia

This commentator feels compelled to offer the two above-mentioned whiz kids some unsolicited advice.

If you want to help save the world from both plastic and climate change, consider focusing on Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular.

Hydrogeologists at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany found that 90 percent of all plastic in the world’s oceans flows through just 10 rivers. All of them run through highly populated areas.

Eight of those rivers can be found in Asia and two of in Africa. The Yangtze River in China carries by far the most plastic.

Putting it another way, five Asian nations are reported to be producing more plastic waste than the rest of the world combined. They are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

But the Southeast Asian nations have fallen behind China in the battle to contain and dispose of plastic waste.

As National Public Radio (NPR) recently explained, a growing middle class in Southeast Asia has been consuming more and more goods “either made of plastic or wrapped in it.”

With its rivers, beaches, long shorelines, and more than 18,000 islands, Indonesia might be among the Southeast Asian nations most severely affected by plastic waste.

Meanwhile, since fish ingest them, microplastics have also entered the human food chain. But most experts say that we still don’t know how microplastics affect human health.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a press conference at the Mayflower Marina in Plymouth, southwest England Aug. 14, 2019,
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks during a press conference at the Mayflower Marina in Plymouth, southwest England Aug. 14, 2019, AFP
The world’s most polluted river

Indonesia provides evidence that Greta Thunberg is correct when she contends that the world cannot afford to wait when it comes to climate change.

Some coastal villages and islands in Indonesia have already been submerged because of rising waters.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has become the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States.

Large-scale commercial logging, the spread of palm oil plantations, and wildfires have caused heavy smog over parts of western Indonesia.

Habitat destruction has threatened the survival of wildlife, including 140 species of mammals identified by the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable. They include one of Indonesia’s best known animals, the Sumatran orangutan.

As Southeast Asia’s most populous nation, Indonesia deserves attention partly because of its size but also because climate change is expected to continue to have a huge impact on the country.

On the positive side, Indonesia has pledged to spend $1 billion to reduce plastic waste and has announced a moratorium on land clearing for new palm oil plantations permits that would have led to an even higher level of greenhouse gas emissions than already exists.

But it should be noted that according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), since 2011 the Indonesian government has removed millions of hectares of forest from such protection. And these removals include the Sebangau National Park, which is one of the world’s largest remaining populations of orangutans.

The palm oil produced on the plantations in cleared areas brings in high profits. Palm oil is used in a variety of products, including margarine, cosmetics, and ice cream, among other things.

The government has pledged to clean up what the World Bank once described as “the world’s most polluted river.” The seemingly impossible goal is to make the river’s water drinkable for some 30 million people who live near it by the year 2025.

Photographs show that the Citarum River, located to the east of Jakarta, has absorbed plenty of plastic. But in addition to the plastic, it contains lead, mercury, arsenic, and other toxins.

Textile factories are the main source of the toxic waste.

Andy Mukherjee, an opinion writer for Bloomberg News, says that environmental stress could worsen in western Indonesia if the country’s president, Joko Widodo, carries out a plan to invest $32 billion to move Indonesia’s capital Jakarta to a forest on the island of Borneo.

As the president explains it, Jakarta is sinking into the sea because of climate change.

Widodo is planning a giant wall to keep the rising waters out.

Meanwhile, World Bank experts say that global warming “presents a clear danger to low-lying cities.” More than five million people, they say, will be displaced if sea levels in Indonesia rise by three meters, or nearly 10 feet. So despite the expense, it might make sense to replace coastal Jakarta with a new capital.

Indonesia and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Indonesia and its Southeast Asian neighbors. RFA
Storm-surge dangers

Mukherjee cites World Bank economists who have concluded that 40 percent of the damage from storm-surge catastrophes will fall on three cities—Jakarta, Manila, and Karachi, Pakistan. The Philippines is already “shifting government offices from coastal Manila” to the higher ground of the old American air base at Clark City.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the deaths of two marine animals after they consumed plastic—a pilot whale and a beloved baby dugong, or “sea cow”—have sparked greater public awareness of the danger of plastic floating in the oceans. The whale died in early June, and the dugong, a vegetarian mammal eight to 10 feet long which is related to the Manatee, died on August 17.

Marine biologists and veterinarians fought valiantly to save the whale but it began vomiting up pieces of plastic. The whale had eaten some 80 plastic bags. Whales normally eat small fish or squid if they can find them.

Ever since the death of the whale, Thai officials have been urging citizens not to dispose of plastic waste in the oceans.

On Aug. 18, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech that it might cost $100 billion or more over 100 years to protect the low-lying city state from rising sea levels.

“There are good engineering solutions to the problem which could include reclaiming islands and connecting them with barrages, but they do come at a cost,” Lee said, according to the Straits Times newspaper.

Meanwhile, in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia may now be setting the pace for recycling plastic waste through a variety of innovations.

As The New York Times reported recently from Melbourne, since China stopped accepting the world’s recyclable waste last year, many countries have faced the challenge of how to deal with their own trash.

Australia’s leadership has announced the goal of increasing the onshore processing of the plastic while eventually banning the export of any recyclable plastic waste.

The Times reporter described a road 16 miles north of Melbourne which is paved with the equivalent of 200,000 plastic bags, 63,000 glass bottles, and waste toner from 4,500 printer cartridges. It is the first road in the world made from Reconophalt, a combination of asphalt and recycled materials.

So far, hundreds of miles of roads using Reconophalt have been laid around Australia, and trials are taking place in the United States and Britain.

Many companies which have attempted to recycle plastic in other countries have found the process too expensive to prove profitable.

But researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales in Sydney are exploring the possibility of building “microfactories,” which would be small machines that could be used in various combinations to create new materials out of plastic.

This doesn’t mean that Australia as a whole can provide a model for the rest of the world.

Take its use of coal, for example. The New York Times reported from Sydney on Aug. 16 that coal from Australia will be sold to an Indian company which is building a new coal-fired power plant in India for nearly $2 billion. The plant will produce electricity to be sold to India’s neighbor Bangladesh.

The Times reported that the Indian industrial giant Adani’s success in securing this deal in Australia “helps to ensure that coal will remain woven into the economy and lives of three countries”—Australia, Bangladesh, and India—for years, if not decades.

Scientists in the meantime have warned that a reduction in the burning of coal will be critical to staving off the most disastrous effects of climate change.

As the Times notes, coal usage is declining in wealthier countries, including the United States and across Western Europe, partly because of the availability of cheaper alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

In Asia, however, the use of coal to create electricity is actually growing in some places, such as Vietnam, which is importing coal from Australia, Indonesia, and Russia.

But when it comes to dealing with plastic waste and climate change, it’s important to remember that individuals, in contrast with governments and large corporations, can make a difference. A teenager in Ireland named Fionn Ferreira who has found a new way to extract microplastics from water has proven this to be the case.

Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.

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