Travelling is for Finding Your….Plastic?
Sam Webster, an undergraduate studying marine biology, shares how witnessing plastic waste in the environment first-hand leaves a long-lasting imprint on daily behaviour. Now, he aspires to make his adventure to the Philippines just as impactful.
There are very few natural places left on this planet that haven’t been spoilt by plastic waste. Over the last 5 years, I have visited many remote island paradises, accessible only by several flights, ferry rides, and smaller boat transits, only to be completely taken back by the amount of plastic waste washed up on these otherwise pristine beaches.
Experiencing and dealing with the reality of environmental destruction affects everyone differently. Someone who has never seen the sea may not be sensitive to the issue of microplastics for example but may be very upset by the loss of a single tree. Sharing the sea with whale sharks in the Indian Ocean, manta rays in West Papua and Hawaiian green sea turtles in the Pacific draws you into another world where even small signs of human’s discarded waste are offensive and upsetting.
What I struggle with the most is coming back from a trip refreshed with a new dose of save-the-ocean enthusiasm only to watch people carelessly consuming single-use plastic without a second thought. It’s hard to explain to them that most of it will end up in paradise since I know for many, only the experience of polluted paradise will change their behaviour.
People understand the issue of ocean plastic and I’m sure most think that it won’t be their generation who will witness the so called “plastic epidemic” threatening far away tropical islands. It is already happening, and I’ve seen the proof.
Let’s just point out one example; plastic shopping bags, of which some 500 billion to 1 trillion are produced, consumed, and thrown away worldwide each year, are said to take 10-1000 years to break down. But that doesn’t mean it’s no longer polluting the environment, as plastics never truly decompose. Instead, it breaks into smaller and smaller fragments through wave action and UV rays. No longer polluting as a plastic bag, but as microplastics, making them even more difficult to extract from the environment.
And so, recently I’ve been thinking about ways that I can best encourage those who are less frequently getting to experience the harsh reality of what plastics are doing to our oceans.
I currently reside in the UK, where the popularity of recycling is increasing, but this poses a hidden danger: it leads us to believe that if we purchase a plastic bottle it will be recycled and won’t end up in the world’s oceans. Actually, 90% of plastic bottles don’t reach proper recycling facilities. Where do the rest go? Many to landfills and some, with other plastic waste, drift through water systems and rivers to end up in the sea. 95% of plastic waste transported to the sea is via the world’s major river systems. The smaller the plastic item, the more likely it is to end up in the sea, with microplastic being the extreme case.
So this time, my trip to South-East Asia has a new agenda to not just observe this issue but encourage change. Island hopping between central Filipino islands, exploring Coron, El Nido, Palawan, and Cebu I will be joined by a fellow ocean advocate and friend. This trip we have designed together is an effort to expose the effects of single-use plastic. As we explore the jungles, lagoons, waterfalls, and beaches that the Philippines has to offer, we will collect and document the plastic waste that plagues this landscape.
What do we hope to achieve? We hope that this plastic orientated adventure will contribute, if only a small amount, to restoring some of the naturalness to these island archipelagos. We hope to provide a gentle nudge to the locals to avoid using single-use plastic. Lastly, we hope to encourage people back in our home countries to do the same.