EARTH Thailand

Tackling plastic waste

Bangkok Post 29 January 2018 | EDITORIAL

A study of Thai and neighbouring underseas life, published last week, proves beyond doubt that people are killing coral. Specifically, the plastic items that wind up in the area of Thai reefs is literally the death of coral. Ocean currents, sand and rocks bash and cut bags, bottles and trash to tiny bits. The coral, living animals, eat the plastic, choke and die.

"Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs" published in Science magazine contains shocking data. The team of scientists involved in the study visited and compiled observations, statistics and short-term predictions on 17 Asian locations from Japan to India and Australia. Among the areas the scientists visited and studied at length were 10 reefs off popular -- arguably too popular -- Koh Tao, the tourist-saturated island of Surat Thani. The dying coral there is a fairly old story. But the new figures on plastic and death on the reefs are shocking. Here's the news.

Thailand is the world's No.6 plastics polluter. That is in total pollution. In fact, comparing coastal populations and the size of reefs, Thailand is the worst dumper of plastic waste on Earth. A total population of around 30 million permanent residents and foreign tourists live, work or enjoy the sun and sand along its coastlines. The nation has 451 square kilometres of coral-inhabited reefs. That sounds like a lot, but it isn't. Indonesia has 34,300 square kilometres and the Philippines has 18,800. But even Vietnam has more than Thailand.

In 2010, the last year for which complete figures are available, Thais and tourists dumped -- the scientists call it "mismanaged" -- 256,935 metric tonnes of plastic. Extrapolation shows this number will increase in 2025 to 544,877 tonnes. If that is mind-boggling, then consider this. To make that astounding total of 256,935 tonnes, Thais and visitors in 2010 tossed 2.66 million plastic items into the ocean. Yes, much of that was inadvertent ocean pollution of items thrown into klongs or sewers and washed to sea.

Scientists predict that in 2025, seven years away, citizens and foreign guests will do this. They will throw, accidentally and on purpose, more than 8.9 million plastic items into the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. Most of that will wash up on reefs, totalling 544,877 metric tonnes.

One hopes that concerned people are reading this report, up to and definitely including the man in charge, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The now undebatable slow death of Thai coral by plastic is by premeditated acts, planned or careless. It is as unnecessary as any act of vandalism, and can be as easily prevented and, thus, mostly stopped.

First, no crackdown is going to save the coral. Short, energetic bursts of anti-pollution enforcement will make no difference. Neither, sadly, will clean-up campaigns by activists and environmentalists. Conservation campaigns inevitably attract those already indisposed to littering and polluting. As is clear from the figures produced in this scientific study, picking up a tonne or two of waste off our reefs will not even delay death by plastic inhalation.

The first cure is education. Not a blitz, but a sustained, multi-year project to get it across that clean waterways -- sewers, rivers, the Gulf and the Andaman Sea -- are everyone's responsibility because they are to everyone's benefit.

Education must show cause and result of careless pollution, as well as stressing the benefits of simply picking up trash and reporting any business skirting the law to dump its waste in public waters.

The second cure is enforcement, even, if necessary, anti-pollution police. Those unable to understand the need for simple environmental steps must suffer consequences great enough to convince others that polluting doesn't pay.