The sport of spearfishing is not sustainable.

Humans have brought the marine world to its knees. With a rod in one hand and net in the other, we have managed to reduce fish in the ocean by half since the 1970s. For some people this has been a wake-up call. Where the f**k are all the fish? The search for an alternative was on. For a more involved, raw and… sustainable approach.

Spearfishing. The favoured pastime of moderate environmentalists (it’s almost a cliché). And, for good reason. Against the shadow of industrialised fishing there’s almost no contest for sustainability. From the size and species of your target to how many fish you bring home, every aspect of the hunt is under your control.

Spearfishing is in fact the most sustainable and ethical forms of fishing
– ADRENO, Spearfishing brand & advocate

But, spearfishing has been operating on a pretty slanted playing field. With monoliths like bottom trawling and Pa’aling in one corner, spearfishing has navigated the backfield relatively unseen. Indeed, it is hard to even consider the impact of the lonely spearfisherman when a single Trawler can bring in over 5,000 fish an hour. However, this evaluates spearfishing in relativity to larger issues, not of itself. This simply will not do.

[A review in the early 2000s of scientific literature] indicated there were 84,200 articles on fishing and only 145 of these had any reference to spearfishing – Dr Adam Smith & Dr Seiji Nakaya

Maybe spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing. Maybe that’s because it has only ever been considered by comparison. Or maybe it is an activity worthy of the ‘sustainable’ branding by its own merit. Who knows? So, what do 145 or so ‘references’ have to say on the matter?

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Pa’aling is one of the most dangerous fishing methods in the world. Source: The Coral Triangle

A Fishing Paradigm

Bottom trawling is a near-indiscriminate pillage of the oceans floor. Gillnet fishing… ghost net fishing has problems. Even recreational line fishing has led to dead zones in the ocean. Everywhere you look fishing bequeaths its own failings. And no failing stands out more than its success.

Overall, 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks [are reported] as fully exploited or overexploited… [of which] nearly two-thirds of the stocks (64 per cent) are classified as overexploited, depleted or recovering – FAO

Perhaps, it is inappropriate to consider spearfishing in this light? (Collectively that is).

Ask any hard-breaded spearfisherman and he will surely tell you of the sports uniqueness against standard fishing techniques. Of bycatch-free hunts, snagless lines, no pollutants and minimal catch rates. And, of course, of conscious hunting. But, here’s where things go downhill. Any possible aspect of sustainability in spearfishing is down to the individual. What happens when the act is not of subsistence and with sustainability firmly in mind?

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Spearfishing is an act of subsistence in most developing nations. Source: Alex Seong

The Sport of Spearfishing

Spearfishing is a big game sport. No one pursues this sport with the intention of spending their days seeking out the plentiful and foul Butterflyfish or the meek Southern Garfish. Your offerings at dinner would be little more than a jar of chunky red ocean water. If you want an intact meal, you will have to hunt something more substantial.

Spearfishing mainly targets large individuals measuring more than 30 cm in length – Dr Josep Lloret et al.

It takes a lot of resources to produce big fish – big anything really. This is not just because they eat more. They eat more of things that eat more of other things. The larger something is the more moving parts involved in supporting it. Take, for example, an apex predator like Tuna. It feeds on intermediate predators like Mackerel, which in turn feed on smaller fish like Herring, which feed on microscopic Copepods, and so on.



If you work from the base of a food web upwards, you will find that at each level there are more and more ‘lower level’ creatures involved in supporting a single ‘upper level’ creature. A single Copepod will consume a hundred diatoms before it becomes food for a single Herring. The Herring will eat a hundred Copepods before it becomes food for a single Mackerel, which will eat a hundred Herring before it is food for a Tuna. That Tuna will eat a hundred Mackerel before it is food for a single human. In this example, there are millions of individuals involved in that single Tuna catch. This is the essence of a comprehensive life-style assessment.

You may not find this science lesson overly rousing. Nor should it be. This simply means that you need to be mindful of what kinds of fish you are taking. Catching a hundred Mackerel may have the same impact as that single tout-worthy Tuna.

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Tuna sit atop the food web and play a fundamental role in marine ecosystems. Source: UIFSA

Spearfishing in a Dwindled Ocean

Our oceans have found themselves in a fragile and precarious position. Now more than ever it is imperative that we find ways to condition ourselves to take fewer fish. Spearfishing often puts its hand-up to fill this void. The selectivity of the sport – being in the water and able to visualise the prey – allows the hunter to choose what they shoot. But, more importantly, what they don’t shoot. This paves the way for a sustainable harvest. Though, there’s a flipside.

The same characteristics that allow spearfishing to be selective also allow it to be efficient. Instead of using techniques that work on a chance mechanism, spearfishing puts you directly in control of what you target and in what numbers. In the hands of a proficient hunter, this opens the door for increasingly destructive harvests.

Spear fishing had a greater overall impact on reef fishes than shoreline pole & line fishing, accounting for 70% of the total reef fish harvest at Waikiki, despite accounting for only 25% of fishing activities observed – Dr. Carl Meyer

When managed incorrectly spearfishing can lead to greater amounts of biomass being removed from the ocean purely by the ease of doing so and the allure of seeing those ‘big ones’ pass right by your face.

Overall, spearfishers remove larger fish and more biomass per outing than fishers using other recreational modes. Although bycatch, gear loss (hence, increased debris), and removal of fish biomass as bait are higher with hook-and-line fishing than with spearfishing – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Recklessly pursuing spearfishing will accompany the decline of the sports image as a sustainable venture. Like everything, the best practices can be devastating in the worst hands: A spearfisherman could fill a boat. A great spearfisherman is complacent with an empty one.

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Targetting larger fish dramatically increases the biomass removed during a single hunt. Though, this issue may be offset by targeting R-selected species, for example. Source: Zanzibar

For the concern of spearfisherman…

This sports image paints one of sustainability and coexistence. But the malpractice of some has aligned the sports damage, in some cases, with that of standard rod-and-line fishing, disrupting essential elements for a complete and balanced structured ecosystem. What has followed includes:

  • Altering composition of local fish communities
  • Lowered fish density and size between regions.
  • Removal of large females with highest spawning output
  • Population sperm limitation
  • Behavioural shifts in fish
  • Species migration
  • A threefold increase in the discard rates of dead fish.

While the damage of spearfishing would be incomparable to industrialised methods like bottom trawling and long line fishing, it seems foolhardy to qualify the merits of spearfishing against the worst events befalling the ocean. In a world where fishing techniques and catch rates have devastated marine environments, there is a begging need to find a way to harvest in a sustainable manner. Of all the techniques out there, spearfishing has the most potential. If only its defining feature did not rely on the sustainable inclinations of humans.



Spearfishing could be sustainable. But, such a feat will only be achieved if those participating in the sport first recognise how fragile marine ecosystems are. People regurgitate the credo of ‘spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing’ without understanding it. It does not mean that caution can be thrown to the wind and you may ‘pillage and prosper’ to your hearts content. No. Spearfishing is sustainable only if individuals are sustainable. And, if individuals are not sustainable then the sport of spearfishing is not sustainable.

Do other fishing techniques have the potential to be more sustainable than spearfishing?

 

What if everyone picked up just one piece of trash a day?

What would become of the ‘garbage crisis’ if everyone picked up just 1 piece of trash a day? Convincing even 1% of our 7.6-billion population to do so, would remove more than 27.7 billion pieces a year. At this pace, the crisis would soon fizzle out – at least the visible crisis. These simple ideas will often translate to powerful action if they can manage to bridge the gap between conceptual and reality. Most never do. And so, the impacts of our ‘throw-away culture’ have persisted.

In 2016 the world generated 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste. This figure has increased year-on-year. By 2050 it is estimated that we will generate around 3.40 billion tonnes.

At least 33% of this waste is mismanaged globally today through open dumping or burning – The World Bank

In many corners of the world this issue will not be forthcoming. In other places, you would struggle to avoid it. Indeed, the build-up of waste largely occurs in developing nations. Here, the localised difficulties have favoured an unsustainable approach to waste management. But, these nations do not exist in a bubble – their impacts have broader implications that affect us all. For any hope of addressing the garbage crisis, these nations will need a foundation.

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Taken near a popular Holiday destination in Lebanon. Source: Gino Raidy

‘Think global, act local’ is a common phrase heard in green movements. It terms how global changes can be achieved if a disjunct community of like-minded people pursue sustainability in their immediacy. Essentially, by making local changes you are a part of a global community all making local changes simultaneously. Though, this begs the question:

How can you actually encourage people to get out and make a difference?

Enter ‘the adventure bag’…

Humans are social creatures. We are naturally inclined to pursue a community with whom we share common interests. We are also simple creatures with a dislike for complicated matters. Combine these in a social movement and you’ll have a powerful concept.

Recently, Jackson Groves, a photographer and blogger, breathed life into a very simple idea: what if people just picked up a bag of trash on their daily outings? From the outset, it wasn’t a revolutionary concept and more idealistic than anything. It needed a spin.

The ‘Adventure Bag’ was born.

Groves himself affirmed that the idea is not new. But, he has succeeded where others failed because of how the idea is shared. It is not some discrete task that takes up your free time nor a burdensome shift in lifestyle. The very root of the movement is non-invasive. You don’t have to change your life. Just bring a bag with you.

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Jackson Groves with an Adventure Bag collected in Panama. Source: Journey Era

The Adventure Bag is exactly what it sounds like – a bag of trash collected on adventures. Whether you’re hiking Panamanian ridges or exploring Barracuda Point, bring a bag and pick up a few pieces of trash. The size of the bag is rather irrelevant. The goal of the movement is not to consider yourself as an individual tackling a seemingly insurmountable problem. This is a community movement. Your single bag of trash contributed to the removal of hundreds or potentially thousands of bags by the Adventure Bag community.

Most adventurers are good people, they enjoy nature and they understand we must protect it. But we are all busy and often brush aside any potential action. The Adventure Bag movement aims to inspire these very adventurers to join the movement and start collecting their very own Adventure Bags – Jackson Groves

Get outdoors. Go on adventures. Explore the environment. The adventure bag demands this. It is an extension and reflection of this love for the world that underpins the movement.



So far, the Adventure Bag movement has motivated several mass clean up days, each garnering a few hundred kilos of trash. Other individuals have taken to their local trails and collected their own #adventurebag, sharing it on social media. The Adventure Bag is bringing change. One bag at a time.

The power of positive social action can be global, it can be big and it can begin to make a dent. But most importantly it can influence many people to make a positive attitude and behaviour change on key issues such as plastic pollution – Jackson Groves

Think Global. Act Local.

The waste crisis can often seem insurmountable and stop people from pursuing seemingly fruitless endeavours. This is a common thread in environmental and social movements. But, these little actions will often be the foundation for something greater.

It took a single man collecting a bag of trash on his daily outings to prompt a movement which has presently collected several tonnes of trash in less than a month. Over this time, the Adventure Bag movement went from a single person to hundreds and soon thousands, with tonnes of trash under their belt.

This is not an uncommon story. Indeed, all movements begin with a single act of rebellion against an established norm.



The One Youth Movement was started by Jasilyn Charger in response to high suicide rates among Native Americans. The movement expanded and later went on to play a pivotal role in halting the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction in 2016.

The Earth Force Society was founded in 1977 by Paul Watson with the main goal of protesting illegal whaling and sealing operations. This movement has since renamed itself to Sea Shepherd and runs a global operation with numerous conservation accolades.

You need only look to some of the greatest social movements to see how powerful a single act can become. While there will be no single solution to the waste crisis, the Adventure Bag and alike movements form the foundations for a perception shift. And this is what the waste crisis is – a discordant perception. The waste crisis will be solved by those who can change the way people navigate the world. And, it could start on your next hike.

 Do you have your adventure bag?

A lonesome predatory Tiger Shark stalks the shallow coral regions of the Great Barrier Reef

The politicising of shark attacks drives culls

Australia is no stranger to shark attacks. Its temperate and nutrient-rich coastal waters have long been the favoured hunting grounds of some 36 percent of all known shark species.

So, when a 46-year-old woman was attacked in the Whitsundays, Queensland by a suspected Tiger Shark, it was little more than fodder for news outlets. But, when a second attack occurred in the same area not more than 24 hours later, some people thought this may be the emergence of a frightening trend.

The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries soon had the area filled with 3 baited drum lines. And within several days had indiscriminately caught and killed 6 sharks found in the area, including Tiger Sharks and a Black Tip Shark.

“It is unclear if [the sharks] were responsible for injuries caused to two swimmers this week,” a statement from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries read.

The Queensland Fisheries response soon overshadowed the earlier attacks. Environmentalists and regular citizens alike criticised the basis and goal of the culling campaign which had become publically bloody and confronting through social media.

Indeed, the more public the cull became, the more people it appalled. The government’s actions brought light to a systemic history of scientifically unfounded and knee-jerk responses to sensitive and complex issues. Furthermore, it raised a frightful proposition:

If culling and the devices that underpin the action are without merit, why have state governments utilised it so widely?

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Drum lines are large baited-hooks that dangle from a buoyancy device on the surface. Naturally, it catches more than targeted species. Source: Australian Marine Conservation Society                                                                                                                                      

Shark culls are scientifically oppositional

Shark attacks tend to hold our attention because they impinge on a primal fear. This fear is magnified when an event suggests an emerging trend with wider consequences, as the Whitsundays attacks did. But, during these times it is important to remain grounded in the facts – this situation is extraordinary though not unprecedented.

In Western Australian, for example, without known cause, shark attacks doubled in a six-month period in 2017. The next year, 2 shark attacks occurred within a day of each other, twice and in the same month. Both cases are believed to be the outcome of freak circumstances, such as the presence a large school of fish in the area.

For the moment, what caused the rapid succession of the Whitsundays attacks is unknown. Regardless of whether it was down to the presence of some external forcing or simply a case of unfortunate coincidence, a shark cull was the chosen response.

 “While shark control equipment does not provide an impenetrable barrier between swimmers and sharks, it is effective in reducing the overall number of sharks in the area, making it a safer place to swim,” stated Jeff Krause, the shark cull Program Manager.



The Queensland Fisheries have repeatedly affirmed their support for the use of drum lines in shark culling as a pre-emptive safety measure. Though this has drawn harsh criticism from most independent scientific bodies who have chosen to speak on the issue.

The problem is simple – perception. Proponents of drum lines often favour it on the appeal of its simplicity. Fewer sharks should equal fewer attacks. Logically, it makes sense. But, it does not pan out this way. This is because a cull in general has no positive influence on public safety, yet alone drum lines, which act as indiscriminate killers of sea life.

During the years 1959-76, a Hawaii-based culling program sanctioned the killing of more than 4500 sharks in an effort to curve growing shark attacks. By its conclusion the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology and the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources declared the whole program ‘ineffective’ because it had no influence on shark populations and attacks.

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Hawaii has a high population of sharks despite an 18 year long cull, which had no influence on shark attack. Source: Doug Perrine                                                                                                                                            

Though, more often than not, it is impossible to devise a definitive conclusion on the efficacy of culls benefit for public safety. Shark attacks are such rare events that differentiating between random coincidence and underlying patterns is fraught with difficulty.

The problem is that shark bite numbers can lie. They lie in three ways. First, shark bites are discrete, random events that do not look random. Second, clusters of shark bite incidents are misleading. And third, we only count when human-shark interactions occur, not when they don’t. – Christopher Pepin-Neff

This highlights a gap in our understanding of shark attacks. We do not yet know the best way to address human-shark interactions. But, history has revealed much of what does not work.

Techniques that utilise drum lines and nets often harbour negative externalities for the broader environment, including; indiscriminate high non-target species catch rates; high mortality rates; undermining scientific research that plays a fundamental aspect in public safety; promotes food web collapses, such as the 1970s North Carolina scallop decline; has no evidence that it translates to public safety; et cetera.

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The decline of sharks in North Carolina waters and the associated food web disruption had many unintended impacts, including plummeting scallop populations – a lucrative business in the region. Source: Michael Wright                                                         

2014 submission to the Western Australia Government regarding its culling programme, contained the signatures of 301 scientists whom affirmed the scientific communities position that there is no evidence to support the culling of sharks.

To say that something is ‘scientifically unfounded’ suggests there is a lack of evidence to provide direction on an issue. To label something as ‘scientifically oppositional’ means that there is evidence suggesting that an action being undertaken will fail. Shark culling is scientifically oppositional.

“[Shark culls are] not even a false sense of safety, it’s actually a placebo.”                   – Jonathan Clarke of Sea Shepherd Australia

Studies have revealed the futility of shark culls. The Australian Government has acknowledged the inferiority and arbitrary selection of this response. Humans oppose these actions on moral grounds and as little more than a speciesism killing spree. So, why are the Queensland Government culling sharks? 

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Numerous protests have occurred across Australia, particularly in WA, where crowds numbering in the 1000s have voiced their opposition to culls. Source: ABC News                                                                                                            

The politicising of shark attacks

It seems to be a common theme in years gone-by: when a desperate situation emerges, people look to their representatives for answers. The representatives, keen to bolster their image in the publics eyes, engage in hasty actions designed to quell the concerns of the masses and win their favour.

Only, there is no action that can guarantee another shark attack does not occur. (Indeed, alternative technologies like shark shield are still in their infancy and non-lethal approaches like shark spotting are seldom applicable along Australia’s coastline). But, this is not the goal of the action. The goal is to pacify the masses and restore or maintain voter confidence.

“Can you imagine the public outcry if anything else happened in that region during school holidays, if the department of fisheries took no action,” Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, following the Whitsundays shark attacks.

In terms of public safety, taking no action would have the equivalent benefit of a cull, just with fewer victims. The Queensland fisheries and the states ministers are well-informed on the scientific consensus on shark culls, including the use of drum lines – every review has recommended against their use or suggested there is not enough evidence to indicate it has a benefit to public safety.



Where these tactics succeed is in perception. They maintain a symbolic status that capitalises on the primal fear of these predators. So often the debate whittles down to a single emotion-driven question: humans or sharks? The decision to cull is to take a stand with your fellow man. The long history of their use in Australia has engrained the perception that these tactics buffer public safety. When a politician enacts a cull, it is in adulation of humans.

This mentality feeds the Queensland Governments current stance. They not only view their actions as virtuous, but obligatory by virtue of the sanctity of human life.

“While of course we will never know if any of the sharks caught would have harmed a person, this government will always place greatest value on human life,” Western Australia’s Fisheries Minister Ken Baston speaking on the regions shark cull

This is a far simpler position to take than the alternative: recognising the failings of culls, upselling personal responsibility and taking associated action. As is the name of politics, this would open the door to all manner of misanthropic libel of your name and stances.

Few politicians are willing to cast dispersions on their public image and risk their lucrative position for the sake of saving a few sharks; for the sake of doing what’s right. No amount of science is going to change this, until it can offer something better than the shark cull placebo.

Do recent shark attacks heavily motivate your recreational use of the ocean?

The Plastic Island MYTH!

Featured Image: The Ocean Cleanup

You’ve likely heard whispers of the ‘Plastic Island’ controversy. Of a vast area in the Pacific Ocean filled with plastic waste so thick it appears to be an island and so vast it outsizes countries. Naturally, such hyperboles drove scepticism and a controversy was born.

When the controversy gained traction, the issue became ideological and each side evermore vocal. Only, both sides have tended to be wrong or devious, indulging truths, misrepresenting facts and flat out denying inconvenient information.

The situation was enveloped in opinion and the true circumstances became difficult to discern. But, amidst the veil of opinions, there are questions that have objective answers – you need only sift through the garbage.

Is the Plastic Island real? What is it? How big is it? Why is there a controversy?



The North Pacific Gyre

The North Pacific Gyre is a major oceanic current in the northern Pacific Ocean. It spans the area between Japan and the west coast of North America. The name may sound familiar. That’s because it is the underpinning of the Plastic Island controversy.

The gyre acts as a sort-of continental sized whirlpool, slowly collecting waste from a vast area and concentrating it in a centralised location. This location is roughly halfway between Hawaii and California. (Although, it would be more appropriately described as two separate regions connected by a bridge – there are two distinct ‘collection zones’, one in the east and another in the west, connected to each other by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone).

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The North Pacific Gyre feeds two distinct garbage patches.
Source: NOAA

This location has come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) because of the exceptionally high concentrations of plastic found there. The exact concentrations of plastics vary across the region. But, a zone of roughly 1.6 million square kilometres has been established, wherein plastic concentrations are highly concerning.

The controversy around this situation has arisen from people indulging or distorting these facts. Most notably of the plastic concentrations in the GPGP through hyperbole and the evidence provided by aerial surveys.

Plastic Concentrations

Language is an important tool for communication. But, it is easily misconstrued, often intentionally. The use of phrases, like ‘garbage patch’ and ‘plastic island’, mislead the reality of the situation.

There is no ‘garbage patch’, nor is there anything reminiscent of the image that comes from the title ‘garbage island”. There is, ‘a large area of ocean where high levels of plastics give the impression of a diffused soup’. In reality, microplastics constitute most of the GPGP – microplastics are still highly concerning.

“The continued use of verbage such as ‘plastic islands’, ‘twice the size of Texas’ is pure hyperbole that I personally believe undermines the credibility of those that should be focused on helping reduce the source stream of marine debris to our oceans.”
Associate Professor, Dr Angelicque White

The claims may be intended to foster greater interest in the issue, but, as the quote suggest, do nothing more than undermine the credibility of the sources that purport the hyperbole. And this has driven people from the cause.

Those that remained adamant proponents of the issue were faced with yet another challenge when images of the area surfaced.

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Besides the occasional presence of large waste, the GPGP appears relatively free of plastic.
Source: The Ocean Cleanup

‘Plastic Island’ Aerial Survey’s and Satellite Imagery

When Aerial Surveys and Satellite imagery of the area purporting to host the GPGP emerged and there appeared to be no rubbish, various news sites jumped to their keyboards in joyous denouncement of the ‘Plastic Island’ – “Where’s the plastic island these greenies keep talking about?”.

Indeed, this was likely the fault of greenies that belied the situation. The very reason these devoid images were so controversial is because the plastic island has been heavily misrepresented. Even the few larger objects visible in the images did little to quell doubt in people’s minds – they had been led to believe the area was engulfed by a vast swathe of plastic waste.

While these images raised doubt in the general public, they came as no shock to the scientific community. They simply reaffirmed what was already general knowledge and what studies had already concluded – there is a high concentration of microplastics in the North Pacific Gyre.

A study published in Scientific Reports, paraphrased by National Geographic, found:

The [model] shows how the concentration levels gradually decrease by orders of magnitude towards the outside boundaries of the GPGP. The centre concentration levels contain the highest density, reaching 100s of kg/km², while decreasing down to 10 kg/km² in the outermost region.

The GPGP is no myth. But, there is much misinformation out there. The controversy around it stemmed from ideological individuals trying to reinforce a biased and incorrect agenda, and all that resulted was confusion and detraction from the real issue of plastic pollution.

What are you doing to reduce plastic usage in your household?



Local boatman swims amongst plastic trash discarded in Manila Bay, Philippines

Is the Philippines going plastic-free?

Featured image: Loic Druart

In the global war on plastic, each incremental win, no matter how small, stands as prospective grounds for a greener and cleaner future.

Humans are the architects of a marine tragedy unparalleled in the last 66 million years. Our marvel? Plastic.

Plastic was born from our vociferous demand for convenience. Now, it is an essential component in most inexpensive production models. This rise has not been without issue.

Plastic is so fantastically designed, but poorly controlled that it has become ubiquitous in most natural environments.

This statement could not be truer for marine environments. Today, there is around 150 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. By 2050 it is estimated that marine plastic will outweigh global fish populations.

The severity of the situation is well-established. But, this knowledge merely begs the question: how can we eliminate a product designed to persist? There is no clear answer to this question because most efforts made so far have failed to address the overriding problem.

The Source.

Plastic pollution of the marine environment is largely an artefact of developing countries. Here, the localised economic and social difficulties of the people overshadow any green dispositions and action.

A scathing report by the UN in 2015 found that half of all plastic waste in the ocean originates from just 5 developing countries – China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Most of these countries took their ranking as nothing more than an inconvenience, particular China whose response exemplifies their abysmal indifference for the environment. The Philippines, however, has not taken this title lightly. Instead, they have taken regulatory steps to affirm a previously unknown environmental agenda.

These steps have drawn much interest because they could serve as a precedent for future action if successful.

So, have these steps achieved effectual reductions of plastic pollution? Does the Philippines provide an answer to solving the plastic pollution crisis?

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Plastic covers the beaches of Manila Bay. Regular clean ups fail to mitigate the build-up.

Source: Adam Cohn

A green agenda.

The Philippines is the third largest contributor to global marine plastic pollution. 81 percent of their plastic waste is mismanaged, equating to 5568 tonnes of plastic pollution per day. This has long been a known issue in the Philippines. (The UN report merely brought it to international attention).

Asian countries are rarely thought of as places that harbour an environmental mentality. However, a peripheral grassroots culture against plastic has been developing in the Philippines for years. Recently this movement, underpinned by the UN report, gained traction and translated into a political motivator.

“I understand the convenience and economics of plastic use. However, we should never let short-term benefits doom us in the long term” – Former Senate President of the Philippines, Koko Pimentel

Following this public statement by the former Senate President of the Philippines, the presence of regulatory frameworks directed at plastic pollution and usage in the Philippines has become more common.

A war on plastic?

The nations topography, complimented by the severity of plastic pollution, puts most Filipinos in daily contact with the material. For example, the clean-up of Manila Bay, a single coastline of this island nation, yielded 1,594 litres of trash.

For many, repulsion is simply an outcome of this daily confrontation. For others, the issue is more of an extensional concern. Regardless, plastic pollution is now a hot-button issue.

Currently, there is no national framework for a complete ban or phase-out of plastics. However, most local governments have attempted to regulate plastic pollution through the passing of ordinances. Some examples include:

Senate Bill No. 1866 prohibits the use of plastic straws and stirrers in restaurants and other establishments.

– The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 contains provisions on recycling options and details recyclable materials.

– The Malay municipal government prohibits the use of single-use plastics in hotels, resorts, restaurants and establishments in the accommodation business. Reoffenders can be fined up to P2,500 and have their business permit revoked.

The presence of regulation directed at plastic usage and pollution in the Philippines is undeniable. However, cracks begin to show when analysing its application.

In some cities, ordinances are devised on the basis of a command-and-control approach. But such a system is thwart with administrative difficulties from day one – most parts of the Philippines lack the resources required to adequately mobilise their law enforcement.

Instead most places assume and rely on the sustainable convictions of people. The Philippines approach to mitigating plastic pollution relies on the individual to act responsibly or to act in accordance with a law that is incapable of being enforced.



Govern yourself.

A lack of national guidance has driven many municipalities to devise their own approach for dealing with the issue. Not all actions against plastic pollution, despite their possibly good intent, have been beneficial.

Many regions have dabbled with alternative waste disposal methods, mainly incineration, which is favoured for dealing with the visual component of plastic pollution. But, only leads to more issues.

Most notable is the municipality of Puerto Princesa City, where 100 metric tonnes of POPs will be released per day through a P2.1 billion WtE gasification development.

Incineration emits a wide range of toxic and hazardous air pollutants, including heavy metals, nanoparticles and many persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These toxins are the subject of the Stockholm Convention on POPs and took a place on a UN treaty for the worst of the world’s hazardous chemicals.

Incineration and other kinds of waste disposal methods are used as cheap and swift ways of addressing the issue without dealing with it – out of sight and out of mind. These are appealing to developing countries for obvious reasons.

The infrastructure and funding needed to appropriately address the issue are preferably spent on economic issues. This logic is at the heart of the countries emphasis on self-action rather than national action.

Indeed, self-guidance itself appears to be an issue because it has resulted in a string of conflicting approaches.

While some places have banned plastic bags, others use them in multitudes. While some places have outlawed the use of plastic condiments, others favour them. While some places are limiting plastic bottle usage, others have increased output.

In some cities, you will be fined for possessing a plastic bag. In others, this is limited to hospitals, city halls and government offices. In others, shopping malls may distribute plastic bags to customers. In one store, you may be denied a bag in abidance of a plastic ban, while the adjacent stores offer out bags in droves – one for every item you purchase.

To this discrepancy the Philippines has fostered much inter-municipality confusion. Furthermore, through a lack of national guidance, a push to reduce plastic usage in the country has translated to regional policies that target peripheral specifics of the issue, such as plastic straws.

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Plastic incineration is rarely undertaken in a manner that addresses toxic emissions

Source: somsak suwanput

Too little, too late?

Small changes are evident in the mentality of the Philippines towards plastic pollution.

There is a higher presence of bins in most cities; the adoption of the three-tier segregation system is evident in most affluent cities; alternative straws are now offered in most tourist areas; many stores offer paper bags over plastic bags; et cetera. There are many superficial changes. But, little has been adopted on a scale needed to achieve tangible reductions.

Little has been achieved because the foundational issues are not being addressed. Despite popular opinion, plastic pollution does not stem from large corporations like Nestle or from their ‘sachet economy’. It stems from people.

“What we need is waste reduction. In order to actually reduce flooding, we need to change our mentality from just throwing things away to learning how to reuse our things” – Soap Boxie

Addressing plastic pollution will require behavioural change. Disassociating the notion of plastic from convenience and plastic waste from disposable. This will be difficult.

Despite the existence of a green movement, most Filipinos do not value the environment beyond its benefits for the self. Most people maintain the view that the environment is an entity entirely separate from humans. And it is treated accordingly.

Addressing this mentality is difficult. Most of the world has failed to overcome it. But, it can be circumvented to at least motivate people to act sustainably for themselves id est plastic pollution and more broadly waste mismanagement as an antithesis of progress.

This will require education; strong governance; investment in waste management; regulation of commercial plastic usage; regulating availability of plastic; social adaptation to change and more. (And, an article of its own).

The Philippines does not hold the answer to halting broader plastic pollution. But, every revolution has begun with a single person demanding change.

Will the plastic pollution crisis be solved by governments or people?

Afterword

***The true motive of the Philippines government and its people is hard to discern. Much of the nation perpetuates some of the most damaging of human actions, including a ballooning population, an abysmal meat abstention rate, deforestation, rapidly declining terrestrial species and fish stocks – what’s the point of a clean ocean with no fish in it? Convenience and pleasure remains the decisive factor for environmental degradation in the region. A factor the Philippines seems unable to adequately and logically address.

***The information in this article is accurate as of the publication date preceding the main text. It is important to recognise that all information should be sourced from a wide and varying range of up-to-date articles, before drawing conclusions.



 

A Sea Turtle in the process of consuming a plastic bottle

Plastics are forever.

Featured Image: Rich Carey

The global anti-plastic discourse was born from the visual and palpable effects of plastic pollution. A six-pack ringed turtle, a plastic ensnared dolphin or the waste-filled belly of a whale insights a visceral response that no issue purely founded in academia can.

This is the great failure of plastic and the champion of the green movement – an associative image that draws an emotive response. This is particularly evident of plastic pollution in marine environments.

“Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our ocean”

Provocative images can, for example, drive swathes of people to their local beach in tireless dedication to a regular ‘beach clean-up’ for which no compensation is received. And still, at a long day’s end, an individual will look back on the events of the day and take in a breath of self-satisfaction.

The invasive nature of plastic on Our visual perception fuels the anti-plastic movement. But, emerging research has revealed a dilemma.

What if, before days end on the beach clean-up, a net-touting scientist were to pass by only to describe your hard-cleaned beach as filthy? That your days efforts accomplished little more than a face-lift. What if this operation removed little more than a fraction of the plastic on said beach? What if most plastics on said beach remained untouched because they are imperceptible to humans?

The classic idiom ‘out of sight and out of mind’ does not just describe a human tendency to remove from thought that which is out of sight. It also describes how sight motives action. In this case, sight motivates a denouncement of plastic.

Enter, Microplastics.

Microplastics are not a new thing. Scientists and businesses have utilised them in everyday products since at least the late 1960s. But, only recently is the magnitude of their impact being realised.

So, what are these troubling denizens of a largely imperceptible world?

Microplastics are a subset classification given to plastic particles measuring 5mm wide or less. This class is broken again into two subcategories: primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are intentionally produced as a raw material for use in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products; as an abrasive component; or as an additional component in many other industrial products.

Secondary microplastics are a by-product. It results from the fragmentation of larger plastic products, such as the breakdown of beach litter or the shedding of synthetic fibres in laundry. For example, synthetic clothing can release up to 700,000 microfibers during the average wash cycle.

microplastics
Most microplastics are imperceptible to humans.
Source: Julianna DaSilva

Whether primary or secondary, all microplastics share at least one commonly concerning characteristic – durability.

The durability of microplastics and plastics in general, is the favoured property that spurred human interest. Now, this property presents one of the biggest threats to marine environments. As structural pollutants, they do not easily biodegrade and are highly persistent in marine environments.

“Nearly all plastic that has ever been released into the environment still exists today”      – Aaron Jackson

The Problem.

The study of microplastics is an emerging field in the sciences and has only recently gained traction. Hitherto research ventures have been poorly funded and the field is understudied. There is little known about the impacts of microplastics on marine life and food webs, for example, and the exact severity of their presence in the world’s marine environments.

As a fault of, the extensity and density of microplastic concentrations in the world’s waters is constantly being revised up, as study after study finds new regions with increasingly higher concentrations.

The findings of a study published in Nature Geoscience concerning the River Tame near Manchester took samples from 40 sites and found upwards of 500,000 particles in these areas alone. The same study discovered that during heavy flooding, around 40 billion particles are washed into the ocean.

A study in British Columbia found microplastic concentrations of 9,200 particles/metre² in seawater. A separate study found that the North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, increased from 331,809 pieces per square kilometre in 1999 to 19,912,037 in 2014.

Studies estimate a global microplastic index of around five trillion pieces. (Although this figure is believed to significantly underestimate the true circumstance).

So?…

While studies are limited, the effect of microplastics on marine life is being realised. To many of these creatures, the true nature of microplastics is indiscernible, and it is mistaken for food or consumed unintentionally. Herein lies the danger.

Filter feeders, for example, are particularly susceptible to unintentionally ingesting microplastics. Creatures like whale sharks and manta rays swallow hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of water every day. This introduces microplastics into their body on a grand scale. In the Sea of Cortez, whale sharks were found to ingest 200 pieces of plastic per day. In the Mediterranean Sea, fin whales swallow about 2,000 microplastics per day.

Large filter feeders are not the only affected creatures. Microplastics effect all levels of the food web. Zooplankton have been observed ingesting up to 30.6 μm of microplastics – a hefty meal by the standards of Zooplankton.

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Marine animals will often mistake plastics for food or consume them unintentionally.
Source: Rich Carey

The effects of microplastics on the body is an equally understudied field. But, evidence is emerging to suggest that the ingestion of microplastics is hazardous to marine animals. Known effects that occur from the ingestion of microplastics include nutritional stress, digestive system blockage, entanglement, inflammation, asphyxiation and more.

More concerning still is emerging evidence that suggests microplastics transport and bind to toxic chemicals, like phthalates; concentrates chemicals, like pesticides, in localised areas; and transports bacteria present in the surrounding seawater or that has been acquired during the transition from land to sea. All of which may be transferred into the body and have adverse toxicological effects.

Small enough microplastics have been observed crossing the cell membrane and causing tissue damage; ingesting these chemicals and pollutants can affect the physiology of the host organism; persistent exposure can compromise a species fitness et cetera.

In the current timeframe of awareness and with the minimal breadth of information available to us, it is difficult to surmise the precise scale and breadth of potential issues. But, precedents set by past and current anthropogenic problems raise concerns around several potential effects, including bio-magnification and chronic toxicity. The concerns don’t stop here.

The most confronting insight for many is the realisation that microplastics have long been impacting humans. While indirectly affecting humans through bioavailability, microplastics in the food web has transpired into direct consumption of said plastics. For example, a study in Europe found that occasional consumers of shellfish may ingest up to 11,000 microplastics a year from this meal alone.

A review of 250 bottles from 11 leading water distribution brands found that 93 percent of the samples had on average 315 microplastics per litre. One sample contained more than 10,000 particles per litre.

Our future.

Plastic pollution has been synonymous with the recent history of man. As our societies have continued to move forward founded on ineffective waste management strategies and outdated perceptions, the issues of plastic pollution are worsening.

Each year we produce more than 330 million metric tons of plastic globally. There are few adequate ways to dispose of said waste. Landfills simply concentrate plastics in a localised area and kick the can down the road. And, this most popular of methods collects microplastics that eventually reach marine environments through the airways during the breakdown process.

The failings of other disposal methods are far less… subtle. In the Pacific Ocean, nestled between California and Hawaii, an expanse 3 times the size of France contains a massive garbage patch. It boasts the highest recorded concentration of plastic, comprising an estimated 80,000 tonnes of the material.

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The North Pacific Gyre is fed by four ocean currents.
Source: J. Jeronimo Sainz de Agüero

A seemingly endless and unbelievable list of the impacts humans have had on the environment through plastic pollution are easily searchable. But, even without research, it seems common sense that plastic pollution has been disastrous and requires drastic action.

The answer to halting future pollution is simple: stop using plastics. The solution to our past is nowhere near as simple. For in the same manner as diamonds, plastics are forever. (Diamonds are not actually forever. It eventually breaks down into graphite).

What habits have you changed to limit your plastic usage?

 

Moving forward? Australia’s plastic bag ban.

Several supermarket chains in Australia have initiated a phase-out of single use plastic bags – touted as the 2018 plastic bag ban. While their intentions are unknowable, especially when much of their store still offers plastic wrapping and containers, the ban was welcomed by environmental groups and much of the general public.

However, it has not been unanimously well-received. For some Australians, it seems to have amounted to a near cataclysmic existential threat. Enraged customers vented their frustrations on social media, with many calling for a “boycott” of the supermarket chains.

Others took a more direct response, resorting to physical and verbal violence towards supermarket staff at the unavailability of a free or paid plastic bag.

The heated response from some shoppers has reignited old calls to offer 15c plastic bags to quell the growing tensions. But, if history is a precedent, it is obvious that bags with a small fee will not solve the issue.



The Scandalous 15c Plastic Bag

In the early 2000’s, a revolutionary idea was surmised: supermarkets would offer 15c plastic bags in place of free ones. By solely offering bags with a small fee, it was intended to deter people from using them and drive them to purchase their own reusable bags.

Again, the response was mixed. Many could not see the plan as a green-minded disincentive. They saw it as corporate profiteering.

Still, the basic economic principle was to deter use through a cost-benefit equation. Where the cost of the bag was proportional to a value that would outweigh the benefit gained through the convenience of a plastic bag. This would invigorate people to purchase their own reusable grocery bags and deter others from using a plastic bag for small purchases. And, it worked… kind of.

Plastic bag sales dropped and reusable bag sales soared. But, there was a certain level of contempt within the general public and hostility directed towards supermarket staff charging customers for plastic bags.

Despite this, many retailers solely offered a 15c plastic bag and took the hostilities with a crocodile smile.

Now, we arrive to today. Where people wish to repeat the process and willingly subject themselves to the former contempt felt from having to pay for a plastic bag.

A small fee for plastic bags will not solve the issue. The best option is to progress with the phase-out and come to terms with the change. Just as people did with the 15c charge. People will either adapt or be forced to carry their purchase individually… which would you prefer?

Moving forward.

Amongst the rallying calls from plastic bag enthusiasts, a small subset can be heard highlighting genuine implications in the ban. Specifically, two issues:

The First Issue: Increased bin liner sales

Removing access to free plastic bags has the potential to increase bin liner sales. A review of the Plastic Shopping Bags act 2008 found exactly this. Bin liner sales increased from 15 percent to 80 percent in the wake of a plastic bag ban. Consumers were inadvertently being driven to a potentially more unsustainable product.

Many bin liner brands contain artificial fragrance chemicals that act as soil and water pollutants. And, have a greater carbon footprint than some single use plastics.

BUT, not all bin liners present this issue.

Like all products there are alternatives that offer uncompromising environmental sustainability, including 100% biodegradable and compostable bin liners. There are many environmentally sustainable bin liners. For tips and tricks on alternative bin liners visit Frugal and Thriving.

With the responsibility of sustainability being pushed onto the consumer, it is imperative that we are proactive in monitoring what and how we purchase items, so as to avoid more consumer driven issues.

The Second Issue: A half-assed plastic ban

Many of these supermarkets have expressed concern for the environment as a reason for their decision. While this does seem noble, their actions do not reflect this sentiment.



Check-out plastic bags make up a fraction of the total amount of single use plastics pumped out by supermarkets. For example, most places still wrap or place their products in plastic, including fruit and vegetables. With no clarification on this counterintuitive dilemma, it is reasonable to see how this discrepancy is driving much of the publics scepticism on the integrity of the ban.

But, regardless of intent, every incremental lowering of plastic usage, no matter how minimal, contributes to a future with less rubbish and removes them from the build-up of dump sites. Even a 1% reduction in Australia’s plastic pollution would equate to 1000’s of tonnes of trash removed from the country’s fragile terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

With all eyes firmly focused on the plastic bag ban, only time will tell if these companies take the necessary steps to affirm their dedication to phasing out plastic usage or if the responsibility will continue to fall on the consumer.

One thing is certain. This ban has drawn much-needed coverage to the issue of plastic usage and furthered the public discourse. Taking one-step closer to a plastic free future.

Are plastic bags on the way out?

 

The Cost of Plastic Convenience #NoPlasticJuly

July signifies the beginning of environmental campaigns heavily focused on the issues of plastic output. Devised as a mechanism to shed light on the direness of plastic pollution, #NoPlasticJuly engages social media users and pushes the issue in front of the unaware.

A key driver for #NoPlasticJuly is prompting people to share their own plastic reductions. But, this has transgressed the intended direction of the month and become a show in greenwashing and a PR move.

#NoPlasticJuly has been whittled down to #OnlyConvenientPlasticJuly. For the most part, people have been complacent with brandishing their plastic saving measures on social media. However, come August or even another meal where the situation is not so convenient or when the fad has died out, and people quickly return to plastic usage.

Studies indicate that convenience trumps sustainability impulses; that people may wish to pursue environmentally-minded avenues, but will falter when faced with inconvenience.

Unfortunately, #NoPlasticJuly has become a token gesture. Those that are truly concerned about the environment and recognise the serious issue of plastic live a #NoPlasticLife.



Convenience.

Convenience has fuelled the surge in plastic usage. But, many of its issues begin in production. Specifically, over 50 percent of the plastic we use is single-use. Meaning, it is designed to be thrown away after a single use. This includes food packaging and most plastic bags. For scale, 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used around the world every year.

After usage, there is no optimal way to dispose of these plastics because they are pollutants by nature. When burned they can produce highly toxic dioxins; when buried they leech into soil causing depletion, water pollution and subsequently loss of plant life; when concentrated in dump grounds, it breakdowns into micro-plastics, again, polluting water and soil.

“Plastic is a substance the earth cannot digest”

–  Plastic Pollution Coalition

Most troubling of all these issues is the ruinous relationship between plastic and environmental water. When properly contained on land, plastics will have a dramatic effect on localised areas, but the peripheries can still remain relatively healthy. (It’s not a solution, but it kicks the can down the road). This is not the case in water.

Plastic affects water directly with pollutants, such as micro-plastics, rendering it unfit for consumption and life. It is a difficult task to halt this contamination. A 2018 study by the State University of New York found that 93 percent of surveyed bottled waters contain micro-plastics – this prompted WHO to conduct an international health review of bottled waters.

The rise of plastic pollution has driven a surge in marine life deaths. Our denizens of the deep inadvertently consume plastics or mistaken them for food or become entangled in it. Some 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, and 1 million sea birds are killed by plastic annuallyThis number is only rising! And so are the statistics.

  • Every day, 8 million pieces of plastic reach the ocean.
  • Plastic makes up to 90% of marine debris.
  • 5000 pieces of plastic have been found per mile of UK Beach.
  • Every year 13 million tonnes of plastic leaks into our oceans.
  • 91% of plastic is not recycled.
  • 500 million plastic straws are used every day in America alone.
  • One million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute.
  • If plastic pollution is not curbed, it will outweigh global fish stocks by 2050.
  • Many plastic products will not biodegrade for hundreds of years – almost all plastic that has ever been made still exists.

Plastic pollution is on the rise! These statistics are a snippet of some of the startling facts to come out of #NoPlasticJuly. So…

What can you do?

Plastic has no essential qualities, despite its qualities seeming essential. It can be used to transport groceries; siphon fluid from a cup; and keep food fresh and more. But, in each of these circumstances, plastic does not need to be the default.

Plastic is purely a product of convenience.

Alternative and sustainable materials and methods are always available. They are just not as mainstream. Reusable grocery bags, fresh greengrocers, biodegradable straws and food containers, for example, are all alternative and sustainable measures for common uses of plastic. (These may seem like trivial examples, so for deeper analysis of removing plastic from your life visit Trash is for Tossers or The Rogue Ginger).



The key to minimising plastic usage will be decoupling this notion of convenience and plastic, completely. Even removing plastic as the occasional and affable back-up for when, say, you leave your reusable grocery bags in the car.

By conditioning yourself to reject plastic as a convenient back up, you will find that you stop forgetting the recyclable bag in the car or considering a plastic straw in your drink. As many people are finding out, the inability to purchase some convenient plastics as back-ups has simply meant people have become proactive in their planning and their resourcefulness.

#NoPlasticJuly was formulated as a genuine way to get the word out about the harm of plastic. While it has not lived up to that potential through the bane of social media, it is symbolic of the enlightenment some individuals have towards achieving a better future.

With stores in Australia initiating plastic bag bans to Mumbai illegalising some plastics to Kenya issuing potential jail time for plastic usage, it is clear that the word is starting to get out. No matter how faint the calls, people are uniting for a plastic free future!

Is plastic reduction on your radar?