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Saving the oceans.

Our oceans are in crisis. Plastic waste dumped in our waterways and spilling out into the oceans was estimated at eight million tons last year. That's equivalent to a dump truck full of water bottles, nappies, and other discarded plastics every minute.

The more frightful part, though, is that this volume could reach staggering proportions such that the plastic finding its ways into the oceans would be more than the aquatic sea life by 2050 - that is, if nothing drastic is done.

The observance of World Environment Day a fortnight ago highlights the need for humans to rethink how they use and dispose of plastics. Coastal cleanups help, but new studies have shown that these have best accomplished to collect less than a percent of the debris now accumulating in the oceans.

With more people dumping their plastic wastes through inappropriate ways, cleanup campaigns seem to be drowning too in the avalanche of detritus finding their way into rivers and flowing out into the sea.

The enormity of the problem has opened new ways of fighting plastic pollution, like the forthcoming deployment of giant vacuum cleaner for plastics floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), a gyre that is estimated to contain 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

The GPGP, located between California and Hawaii, is just one of the eight gyres that have been discovered by ocean scientists and environmentalists. These garbage patches have been growing bigger through the years with accumulated plastics, half of which are discarded fishing nets.

Call to action

Nations, companies, and above all, citizens are now mobilizing resources to save the oceans and seas. China, home to the Yangtze River, has mandated 46 of its big cities to start a waste recycling program that would address 35 percent of its wastes by 2020.

The Yangtze has been tagged as the biggest source of plastic waste in the world that finds its way to oceans, followed by India's Ganges River. Together with eight other rivers in the world, these account for 90 percent of all the plastics floating on the oceans.

Last year, India started a ban on plastics, a laudable first step, but something that needs to be followed up by better measures on waste management and heightened public awareness.

Local initiatives

We should be proud of how the Philippines has advanced in the sphere of plastic recycling compared to other countries who are members of the United Nations Environment Assembly.

Many cities and barangays are actively pursuing waste segregation and recycling campaigns, and there are regulations that ban the use of plastic sando bags by retailers and plastic drinking straws by fast food joints. Similarly, a number of local governments actively pursue coastal cleanups.

Many civic groups, as well as businesses, pursue environmental cleanup campaigns and there is a thriving recycling business that feeds on the efforts of kariton-pushing individuals who scavenge on city litter that can be sold to junk shops.

But much more can be done and achieved. Our level of plastic waste still needs to be reduced further, and our government has to come up with better waste disposal measures, as well as stricter enforcement of bans that attempts to address the problem of plastic refuse.

Technology to the rescue

As an archipelago, we have to do more than other countries in saving the oceans, not only from plastic, but even all other forms of pollution - from overfishing, destructive fishing methods, and unsustainable and ecologically harmful fish farms.

What's new these days in the fight to keep our environment, particularly our oceans safe, is the emerging role of technology in 'correcting' the ills of plastic, which ironically is touted as one of the greatest innovations of modern mankind.

Through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, scientists and innovators were challenged to rethink the production of plastic, as well as its use and reuse. Eleven winners were chosen and they will share the $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize.

There were two categories: The Circular Design Challenge focused on small items like shampoo sachets, wrappers, straws, and coffee cup lids; while the Circular Materials Challenge targeted lightweight, flexible packaging used for many things we buy, including food and our smartphones.

Winning ideas

Here are some ideas that won the judges' nod:

An app that would let shoppers order the exact quantities of the groceries they need, which are then delivered in reusable packaging from the producer to their closest store or to their home.

A social enterprise that would offer products in small quantities in reusable containers across a network of 1,200 local convenience stores.

Food wrappings and sachets made of a seaweed-based material that can be dissolved and eaten.

Technology that allows restaurants to make and serve sauces in edible and compostable sachets.

A reusable cup subscription service, in which reusable cups can be dropped off at any participating store.

A disposable paper cup made with an origami-like technique that removes the need for a plastic lid.

Nano-engineering application to create a recyclable material that can replace complex multi-layered packaging that is unrecyclable.

A magnetic additive that can be applied to a material, creating better air and moisture insulation, suitable for products like coffee and medicines, but still recyclable.

Compostable high-performance and multi-layer materials from renewable materials, agricultural by-products, and food waste, as well as a coating with silicate and biopolymers - all for food packaging and all fully compostable.

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Publication:Philippines Star (Manila, Philippines)
Date:Jun 21, 2018
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