Environment | High tide of plastic waste only getting worse


Environmental experts and volunteers told the Times this week that the problem of plastic waste pollution in Macau’s surrounding waters is only getting worse, and that much of this waste will continue to wash up on the territory’s shores in the years to come. There are added concerns that authorities have not been able to tackle the root of the problem and, instead, are merely treating its symptoms.
This month, activists and concerned citizens across the globe are abstaining from using plastic as much as possible. “Plastic Free July” aims to raise awareness of the prevalence of single-use disposable waste in our lives and its negative impact on the environment.
The consumption of single-­use plastics in Macau is more widespread than we might think, and much of it –  one way or another – ends up dumped in the South China Sea. Aside from the excessive plastic packaging of supermarket food, milk-tea shops in the city readily supply customers with plastic cups, straws, lids or sealing film, and sometimes an unnecessary plastic bag for carrying the take-away drinks.
But how does this waste end up in our seas?
Douglas Woodring, co-founder of the Hong Kong-based charity Ocean Recovery Alliance, told the SCMP in May that around 80 percent of plastic waste in the sea comes from the land as a result of illegal dumping and poor garbage management in cities.
Some have speculated that there has been a great deal of illegal dumping of household waste into the Pearl River from the cities in Guangdong Province. This dumping is illegal under international protocols, such as the 1996 International Maritime Organization agreement, which prohibits the dumping of materials in the sea (apart from a few exceptions such as “sewage sludge” and organic materials).
Ho Wai Tim, the president of the Macau Ecological Society, proposed an alternative view, suggesting that the dumping from mainland China may not be intentional.
He believes that recent heavy rain has contributed to the problem by washing a large amount of plastic waste into the sea and subsequently onto Macau’s shores.
“The most serious place where the rubbish is accumulating is a corner near the Ocean Gardens residential complex, because geographically the trash that accumulates there cannot be easily removed by natural processes [i.e. the wind and waves],” Ho told the Times this week.
Shocking images were released by the Times in recent weeks depicting the sheer scale of garbage that ends up on Macau’s shores, particularly at Hac Sa Beach and on the coastal side of NAPE.
Professor Karen Tagulao, who is affiliated with the Institute of Science and Environment at University of Saint Joseph, said that the government’s cleaning efforts are a positive sign, but they do not address the source of the problem. “A better (solid) waste management system is needed,” she explained.
A recent beach clean up operation, in which Tagulao participated, unearthed 3,136 plastic bottles, 2,592 polystyrene items, 1,360 plastic utensils and 247 plastic bags – all in a single hour.
“Overall I believe that the situation is getting more serious,” commented Ho Wai Tim.
Meanwhile, others say that although some waste might be coming from mainland China – easily identified due to branded plastic packaging – much of it equally comes from Macau. This is symptomatic of a lack of knowledge about the problems of plastic wastage, says MDT columnist Leanda Lee.
“Plastics are harmful because we don’t yet understand the damage,” she explained. “It’s not in front of our faces, it’s hidden, unlike fuel consumption and air pollution. As a community we don’t understand the damage.”
“We don’t have a mindset of the damage that waste does,” added Lee. “[Or] of what it leaves behind for others to deal with.”
Over time, some plastics breakdown into micro-particles – if they are not directly consumed by marine life – and find their way into the planet’s food chains, toxifying them along the way. Not only does this damage the environment, but it also poses a number of health risks for marine life and people.
Another major problem with plastic waste is that it can be very difficult or even impossible to treat once it becomes widespread across the planet’s oceans.
Marine biologist Miriam Goldstein pointed out a few years ago that much of the plastic found in our seas is very small or even microscopic.
“The pieces are very small; I mean they are crumb-sized or smaller,” she said. “So, in order to pick up pieces of that size, you need a very fine net, and a very fine net is going to catch everything else as well…” including marine life.
For the meantime then, the presence of plastics in our seas might be irreversible; a point stressed by Lee who says that we simply don’t know how to “fix” the problem.
The government is taking only minor steps to address the problem. It implemented a “no-plastic bag day” some years ago on the 18th and 28th of each month, though it is unclear whether the policy is still being promoted.
In 2013, an Environmental Protection Bureau (DSPA) survey found that only 20 percent of respondents knew about the policy. The same survey estimated that the annual consumption of plastic bags alone in Macau amounted to 450 million units.
The DSPA did not provide answers to a Times’ enquiry by press time.
Professor Hojae Shim said that the DSPA ought to take better care of nearby coastal waters as they are a source of drinking water for the territory.
He said that a more holistic recycling program for plastic products should also be implemented, especially plastic waste, which “should be separated first before [being incinerated].”
“If the respective technology is available, plastics should be recycled instead,” added Shim, pointing to other examples around the world such as Germany and Korea.
Last week, a Marine and Water Bureau representative told the Times that the entity dispatches personnel to the sea around Macau on a daily basis to monitor the situation.
“Once marine refuse is spotted accumulated on the surface of the sea, vessels will be sent out to collect the rubbish. The number of staff and the frequency of cleaning will be increased in order to safeguard navigational safety and maintain the marine environment, when necessary,” read a statement from the Bureau.
However, not all plastics float on the surface of the ocean. Denser plastics may float underneath the surface or rest on the seafloor. A study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. found that plastics are the most abundant marine debris items found on the seafloor.
Ho, from the Macau Ecological Society, believes that a cleaner environment in the seas around Macau is possible, if local authorities are able to effectively cooperate with their mainland equivalents.
“In the past Macau did not communicate with mainland [authorities] regarding rubbish in the sea because the sea area was not under Macau’s administrative authority. Only after December last year did Macau start to administer the surrounding seas,” he said. “So now Macau can start to think about the problem and how to solve it.”

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