Eight million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. Half of it comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. If we are going to slow the flow of plastic into the ocean, these countries are the place to start. But how do you go about it? This is the subject of a report from The Trash Free Seas Alliance called Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean.
Stemming the Tide is a thorough search for the best solutions for these leakiest countries. The report stresses that solutions must be land-based. Land is where eighty percent of plastic in the ocean originates from. The logistics of removing plastic once it reaches the ocean is very difficult, and once plastic fragments into tiny pieces in the ocean, it is impossible to remove. Solutions must be global. China’s plastic becomes everyone’s problem once it enters the ocean. Solutions must be put in place right away. Plastic production is expected to increase from 250 million tons to 380 million tons by 2025. The report considers possible solutions ranging from bag bans and fines on litterers to building new sanitary landfills. Cost per ton of plastic not leaked is compared for each potential solution. Below is their list of the best options for these countries.
Increasing garbage pick up and plugging leaks in existing waste management systems are the best solutions in the short term. On average, only 40% of garbage is collected in these five countries. Most of the plastic in the ocean (75%) started off as uncollected garbage, so increasing garbage pickup is a top priority. Twenty-five percent of ocean plastic was collected but still leaked into the ocean. Some was dumped before it reached a landfill to avoid paying tipping fees. Rivers are a favorite illegal dumping spot because trash washes out to sea where it is no longer the trash hauler’s problem. Often trash is brought to open dumps rather than sanitary landfills. Sanitary landfills have liners to prevent groundwater and soil contamination, they are covered with dirt to keep trash from blowing out, and they have methane collection systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and methane explosions. Open dumps have none of these safeguards. Sanitary landfills are preferred, but open dumps can be made less leaky fast with low-tech improvements, like containing the dump and a single access road within a wall of old tires.
The next fix on the list is to build more waste-to-energy plants. Only 20% of used plastic, mostly PET bottles, are valuable enough to be recycled. Waste pickers comb the dumps and collect high value items but leave 80% of the plastic behind. Waste-to-energy plants that are commercially viable and have good pollution controls are needed to handle the waste that can’t be collected for a profit.
In the long term, plastic products need to be redesigned so they hold more value after their useful life is over. Low value plastic is more likely to end up in the ocean than high value plastic. If waste pickers can earn more money collecting and selling other types of plastic, they will.
For the five worst offenders, the price tag for bringing collection rates from 40% to 80%, plugging the leaks and increasing the number of waste-to-energy plants is about five billion dollars per year. Five billion per year would reduce plastic leaked from these countries by 65% and reduce the global flow of plastic into the ocean by around 45%.
Let’s not wait. We can keep plastic out of the ocean right now. Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach, pick up plastic and throw it away. Maybe the plastic you pick up washed in from a country with a low garbage collection rate and leaky dumps. Once it’s in the ocean it’s everyone’s problem. Be part of the solution.