The perils of plastic

December 17th, 2009

A report by Maldives Minivan News

From polythene bags to nappies, a growing tide of plastic is destroying beaches and harming coral reefs and marine life in the Maldives. Talk to any marine biologist in the country and you will hear tales of plastic bags smothering corals, or turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish and swallowing them whole.

“I dive pretty much every day and come back with plastic bottles and bags,” says Abbie Hine, a marine biologist at Four Seasons. “There’s a lot of stuff down there and with the incredible marine life here it gets ingested by a lot of animals.”

Most plastic is not biodegradable and remains in the oceans for centuries. Naturally buoyant, it gets carried across vast distances, breaking down into successively smaller particles which are ingested by creatures lower and lower down the food chain. Throw in the effects of climate change, ocean acidification and overfishing, and marine animals appear to be fighting a losing battle. “Scientists are now saying there’s more plastic than plankton in the ocean,” says Hine.

Hussein Zahir, a senior reef ecologist at the Marine Research Centre, attributes the rise in plastic debris to a change in lifestyle in the Maldives. While consumption of inorganic goods, such as bottled water, has increased, he says, waste disposal methods have remained the same.

Traditionally, waste has been disposed of at designated areas on the beach, or piled up on uninhabited parts of an island for natural composition. But in reality, most of it ends up in the sea. The word for beach in Dhivehi, “godudhoh”, literally means dumping site. “People think that the ocean is a big waste bin,” says Mairyam Shafiya, assistant research officer at the Marine Research Centre. A report on marine litter published by the United Nations Environment Agency in June, notes that one of the main sources of marine litter around he world is from dumpsites located near the coast.

Maldives Underwater Sea Turtle The perils of plastic

Sea Turtle in the Maldives

Adam Rasheed, a wind-surfing instructor, from Shaviyani atoll Feydhoo, says that while there is an allocated spot for rubbish on his island, most people throw their litter onto the beaches and into the bushes. “In one or two years, we won’t be able to even walk there. It’s not only one place. It’s everywhere,” he says. “I went snorkelling yesterday for lobsters and saw two or three nappies, three to four plastic bags and some clothes.”

Cultural change

Plastic debris left over from fishing is another source of marine litter, leading to the entanglement of marine animals in fishing lines and nets. “We have found Olive Ridley turtles before. We have collected quite a few entangled in nets. Sometimes dead, sometimes alive, sometimes disabled,” says Zahir. But, he says, there is very little that can be done about ghost nets which are believed to float down from India and Sri Lanka. Discarded fishing lines, he says, are mainly left behind by tourists on recreational fishing trips.

The impact of marine litter on the environment can result in serious economic losses, especially important in the Maldives, which relies heavily on both tourism and fishing as two of its primary sources of income. A joint UN-government entitled Valuing Biodiversity published earlier this year established unequivocal links between biodiversity and the economy. It examines the tourism and fisheries sectors which provide three-quarters of the country’s jobs, 90 per cent of the GDP and two-thirds of the foreign exchange earnings.

While the government has no specific objectives to reduce the use of plastic, it is working towards establishing a solid waste management system, says Ahmed Murthaza, assistant director of the Environment Protection Agency. He adds that regulations are being drawn up to establish waste collection points and disposal, and should be completed by January next year.

“There’s a lot of work that we need to do,” says Murthaza. “We need to charge more for plastic bags and not charge for environmentally-friendly products. Changing behaviour is not a very easy thing. We don’t be able to do it overnight.” Littering, according to the UN report, has largely cultural roots with current attitudes and behaviour demonstrating that people do not feel responsible for their rubbish.

Plastic-bag free

On World Ocean Day in June, the head of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) called for a world-wide ban on thin film plastic bags, which he described as “pointless”. Achim Steimer, UN under-secretary-general and UNEP executive director said marine litter was symptomatic of a wider malaise: the wasteful use and poor management of natural resources.

“The plastic bags, bottles and other debris piling up in the oceans and seas could be dramatically reduced by improved waste reduction, waste management and recycling initiatives,” he said. “Some of the litter, like thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere – there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.” Steimer added other waste could be cut by boosting public awareness, and promoting the three Rs – reduce, re-use and recycle – rather than dumping waste into the sea.

Around the world, a number of countries have banned or limited the use of plastic bags. One of the biggest successes is Ireland, which in 2002 passed a plastic bag tax, around Rf4, charged at the till. Within weeks there was a 94 per cent drop in plastic bag use. France is aiming for a complete ban by 2010.

Even in the developing world, countries have been making efforts to restrict the use of plastic bags. In May 2003, South Africa set the ball rolling by banning thinner plastic bags and charging levies on thicker ones with Kenya and Uganda following suit in 2007. In 2005, Eritrea, Rwanda and Somalia all banned plastic bags. In South Asia, Bangladesh imposed a ban on light-weight plastic bags in the capital, Dhaka, while Mumbai, in India, banned plastic bags in 2000.

 The perils of plastic

Stunning Coral Reef Garden in the Maldives

For Hine, most people in the Maldives simply do not think about their use of plastic. When in Male’, she says, her refusal of plastic bags in shops is met with perplexed looks. “I would love to get the Maldives plastic-bag free,” she says. “The government is very proactive on the environment and this would be a way to keep the global attention on the country.”

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