Published August 19, 2012 in the Borneo Post by Mary Margaret
STREAMS of plastic bottles, plastic bags, Styrofoam packaging and
pails were swept past by the out-flowing current along with coconuts,
palm fronds and other naturally decomposing debris. The debris might be
caught in nets before being swept out to sea, or entangled in roots, or
dropped along the beach, or end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Moore found the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre
about 10 years ago. Since then it is estimated to have increased by
24,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish per year – larger than the American
state of Texas. The rubbish is blown in off land, swept down rivers or
tossed over board from ocean-going vessels.
Wildlife deaths are
well documented. Turtles consume plastic bags, as they resemble
jellyfish when floating in the ocean. Seabirds, including albatrosses,
prey on plastic decimating the population in the northwest Hawaiian
Islands – a marine sanctuary. Huge chunks of plastic are left among the
Plastic has changed marine ecosystems. A
recent article in a British newspaper described how the marine insect
Halobates sericeus, a species of water skater, is now using the floating
plastic debris to lay their eggs on. Before the change in environmental
conditions, these insects laid their eggs on shells and feathers, for
example, and were generally found close to shore.
What have we
done to reduce the risk of plastic? In Kuching some shops do not provide
free plastic bags on Saturdays. Miri has taken the leap to ban plastic
bags and if you need one you must buy it. Toronto, Canada and Los
Angeles, USA have banned plastic bags, a step also taken by some
Saying no to plastic and bringing along your reusable
shopping bags is well on the way to becoming the norm. The plastic bags
that we might still receive tend to feel floury, and these are naturally
biodegradable as one of the ingredients in this type of plastic is
starch. And this type of plastic is produced in Kuching.
plastic is trapped (netted) from the section of the Sarawak River that
runs through Kuching and in Kota Kinabalu, helping to reduce the
accumulation of plastic rubbish in our oceans.
experimented with in the mid-1800s but really came into its own in the
20th century. This man-made material is made up of long repeating links
of carbon, along with, generally, oxygen, sulphur or nitrogen. It is a
miracle material that takes multiple shapes and lasts forever. Its
strength is its weakness.
It is also a very variable type of
material that can be classified by its chemical composition. Some of the
common names are acrylics (acrylic paint), polyester (material for
clothes) silicones, polyurethanes and halogenated plastics. Plastics can
be classed by if they undergo a chemical change when heated.
Thermoplastics do undergo a chemical change when heated and so can
re-moulded when recycled. However, the chemical compositions of
thermosetting polymers change when heated.
The first step to
reduce the amount of plastic pollution is to reduce its use. We have
taken that step by saying no to plastic bags and using of reusable
containers. What else can we do? All plastics can be recycled, even
through it is not easy because of the variety and in complex items such
as hand phones there may be many types.
Despite this, much ends up
in landfill sites covered from ultraviolet light, staying and remaining
intact. Plastics are sometimes incinerated for disposal. However, this
leads to the release of dioxins into the air.
The Great Pacific
Garbage Patch sits accumulating plastic in the Northern Pacific Gyre,
but how can it be cleaned up? In 2009, a group of scientists and waste
managers went to see and develop techniques. The large pieces, for
example toys, could be easily collected in nets or collecting
containers, but the smaller pieces posed greater difficulty as
collection could also harm marine life.
The next question was what
to do with the tonnes of rubbish. Disposing of it in a landfill site
moves the problem but one suggestion is to use pyrolysis; this involves
heating the waste to 288 degrees Celsius in a vacuum to turn the waste
into fuel – an expensive option.
Plastic, the miracle material of the 20th century has led to plastic perils, but it is a material we have come to depend on.
use plastic almost everywhere – our homes, offices and workplaces,
modes of transportation – tables, chairs, dishes, computers, hand
phones, car bumpers, hiking equipment … I don’t suppose many days go by
when we do not use plastic, but this miraculous man-made material causes
so many problems.