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Saving the seas from plastic pollution

Column box-Dennis Gorecho

The video of a marine biologist removing a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose in August 2015 catalyzed a larger movement to eliminate single-use plastics, like plastic straws, from our day-to-day lives.

Marine litter, specifically plastic pollution, was discussed as part of Earth Day celebration during the recent episodes of Amigos Marino weekly online show by Von Hernandez of Break Free From Plastic movement and Chief Mate Aries Damian of Mariners Polytechnic Colleges of Bicol.

Marine litter is any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded directly or indirectly into the sea, rivers or on beaches.

Marine litter poses threats to human health, food security, economy and environment, including degradation of marine and coastal habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity.

A major source of pollution are single-use disposable plastics that come in various forms such as straws, sachet packs, bags, cutleries, cups, and plastic bottles that are meant to be used only once, before being thrown away.

If there are no drastic interventions, by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean.

Plastic bags take 10-20 years to decompose, while plastic bottles take 450 years.

These items tend to shrink into smaller pieces (called microplastics), which never achieve full decomposition and return to the food cycle through ingestion by fish and other animals as “false food,” causing digestive failure, suffocation, starvation, drowning and eventually death. Some animals become fatalities due to entanglement.

The Philippines, which disposes 2.7 million tons of plastics per year, is considered the third-largest global contributor to the 8 million tons of plastics that are estimated to flood our oceans each year.

More than 163 million plastic sachet packets, as well as 48 million shopping bags and 45 million thin-film bags are used and disposed of daily in the country.

The more visible manifestations of the problem due to single-use plastics include the clogging up of waterways, drainage systems, and therefore contributing to floods.

Hernandez echoed the call of environmental groups for the passage of a comprehensive Single-Use Plastic Ban as an essential policy tool to stop plastic pollution by shifting corporate dependence on throwaway packaging models to more sustainable reuse and refill systems.

They seek to apply pressure throughout each step along the plastic supply chain, from production to disposal.

Single-use plastic is not a clean-up problem but a pollution problem, Hernandez stressed, adding that the only way to prevent it is to stop its production and avoid using them in the first place.

This means looking at plastic at the different stages of the life-cycle, and not just treating it as a waste management or consumer responsibility issue, which is what the plastic industry wants.

Looking at it that way, Hernandez added, takes the industry off the hook and allows it to continue producing even more plastics.

On the other hand, CM Damian noted that the Annex V regulations of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), as first drafted in 1973 and amended in 1978, address marine pollution including handling of garbage from ships.

MARPOL seeks to ensure that the marine environment is preserved by the elimination of pollution by all harmful substance that can be discharged from the ship.

Annex V, which came into force on December 31, 1988, expressly prohibits all ships from discharging garbage, which includes all kinds of food, domestic and operational waste, all plastics, cargo residues, incinerator ashes, cooking oil, fishing gear, and animal carcasses generated during the normal operation of the ship and liable to be disposed of continuously or periodically.

The most important feature of the Annex is the complete ban imposed on the disposal into the sea of all forms of plastics, including but not limited to synthetic ropes, synthetic fishing nets, plastic garbage bags and incinerator ashes from plastic products, which may contain toxic or heavy metal residues.

It specifies the distances from land in which materials may be disposed of and subdivides different types of garbage and marine debris.

The requirements are much stricter in a number of “special areas.”

There must be a garbage management plan whichis a complete guideline that comprises of a written procedure for collecting, storing, processing, and disposing of garbage generated onboard ship.

Vessels are obliged to deposit plastic waste at reception facilities ashore as port state signatories are required to provide adequate and appropriate reception facilities.

Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.

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