by Brent Cruz

Beneath the sapphire aura of ocean’s serenity lies a devastating reality.

Plastic bottles visibly dispersed on the sidewalks. Candy wrappers and cigarette filters immersed across the streets. Sando bags sailing with marine faunas in the ocean off guard. Commonplace these scenes may be especially in populated places, it only exposes the magnitude of a problem the population ignores: a serious and emerging plastic pollution.

In 2017, a Filipino artist named Biboy Royong conceptualized and crafted a dead whale sculpture about the size of five cars in Cavite Province, after a young pregnant sperm whale was found dead in the shores of Davao del Norte last 2016, its body filled with plastics. Royong abstracted the figure from gathered bottles, garbage, straws, and plastic wastes to design a crusade that will nurture awareness to people.

Named the Cry of the Dead Whale, later with a second, larger version created in front of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Royong hoped his sculpture will disseminate discussion on the current dilemma of plastic pollution and encourage the society to reflect about the atmosphere and its populations.

“[It] makes people wonder if they will still see living whales or other sea creatures in the future due to the garbage problem,” Royong added.

Plastics spell real crisis; a threat to every living thing. Now, it is no longer blurry why neither whales nor seabirds mistake plastic waste for food, slowly stuffing and poisoning them to their tragic demise – all because of the increase of their non-living, synthetic invader.

How does it feel to live a life below water?

Two faces of plastics

Plastics are a wide range of synthetic organic resources – that is, man-made materials that contain carbon – that can be easily shaped in other forms and material.  They are used in increasingly diverse means across different industries. However, our increasing dependence with plastic has turned gradually parasitic to a point that a life without plastics would be unthinkable. With the power to wrap itself around today’s major needs – from electronics to mobility and transport, construction, leisure, healthcare, packaging, and energy – everything becomes accessible.

But from the luxury that plastics afford us, human greed, justified through consumerism, unironically, is the principal cause of marine destruction, affecting not only aquatic lives but the aquatic world in general. Every year, millions of tons of plastics, solid waste, and other pollutants end up in oceans and other waters, floating along the stillest current. Some land on the well-known beaches and isles. Some edge off beside the coastlines. Some travel under the sea, eaten by unsuspecting marine fauna.

The primary resource to create plastic, fossil fuels, are not replenished at a steady pace and by itself poses a risk to wildlife. The plastic littered on land and below water will be here to stay, too – for some hundreds of years, at least.

With its two-faced character, how can we grasp these abundances while blocking plastic out of nature?

A growing concern

It was 1907 when American chemist Leo Baekeland made the first fully synthetic and mass-produced plastic: Bakelite. With the right formula of compounds, its impact played a critical role in electricity and radio industry, ushering an age of industrial development.

But as time passed by, the breakthrough triggered a growing concern.

Heaps of plastic trash ending in canals, junk and garbage clogging drainages and massive hazardous dump sites are among the most apparent evidences of plastic crisis in the Philippines.

With its undeniably negative effects to human health and environment, the effect of plastic pollution showed in several alarming instances. In the Gulf of Aden nearby Yemen, a whale shark ingested plastic which resulted to such peril – and though whale sharks are said to be the largest fish in the sea, they are still vulnerable to plastics. Similarly, researchers have drawn approximately 40 kilos of plastic waste out of the stomach of a young goose-beaked whale in the Davao Gulf, leading to its deplorable death last 2019.

The plastic crisis certainly does not end with past and current occurrences; numbers do not lie either. National Geographic and UNESCO reported that:

  • over 220 million tons of plastic are made each year
  • plastic production expanded exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015 and is expected to double by 2050
  • the Philippines produces 2.7 million tons of plastic waste yearly, a fifth of which escapes into waterways
  • about a billion pounds of plastic waste end up in oceans from coastal states annually
  • plastic rubbish caused the death of about 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually
  • over 40 percent of the ocean is affected by plastic pollution, a source of living for over 3 million people

Closing off or even prohibiting plastics would purge them out of paradise. But would it be possible?

Unity against plastics

Despite the disturbing figures, we need to move forward. We need a call to act. We need to care more than ever. We need to open our eyes. We need to implement our stand and advocacies. We need to hold people and groups accountable for their greed.

We must do it now.

Everybody has a part here: the rich and the poor, individuals and (especially) corporations, advocacy groups, concerned departments, the private sector, and the government.

This movement includes developing novel advancements and technological approaches to diminish the growing concern made by plastic waste and using the 4Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Recovery) to great effect. At the hand of strategic and inventive collaborations, different global alliances and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in plastic waste disposal management to save ocean life. These organizations include:

  • Mother Earth Foundation
  • World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
  • Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)
  • Plastic Pollution Coalition
  • Break Free from Plastic
  • Greenpeace

Significant progress was fulfilled two decades after Republic Act 9003, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, was passed, setting the foundations for proper waste management systems.

Alongside the said system, National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) was also created to further strengthen and supervise the law’s enactment. In the country, local government units (LGUs) hold major responsibility in the administration of productive waste disposal and control systems and programs. But despite the law being passed, plastic accumulation in the country is on the rise with the government struggling to enforce the law.

Strictly enforced laws, working systems, coordinated manpower, and citizen cooperation are needed to tackle head-on this ever-rising problem.

Goal for 2030

Aligned with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the the United Nations (UN) Member Federations in 2015 that focuses on the world’s most pressing challenges, the 14th SDG named Life below Water aims for a better future for our oceans through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

With the continual deterioration of oceanic habitats, the goal (as with the other SDGs) is designed to be achieved by the year 2030. These goals encompass economic institutions to aquaculture, and fisheries, scientific understanding relating to marine technologies, perseverance of the international law on oceans resources, and adverse influences to protect coastal ecosystems to achieve unpolluted and progressive oceans.

“As a conservation organization seeing the urgency and direct impacts on our ecosystems, we know that’s just not enough. I think we have to be ambitious, because the problem is so big,” said Erin Simon, the WWF Director of Sustainability Research and Development.  In line with the goal Life below Water, the WWF has fixed a resolute scheme of No Plastic in Nature by 2030.

Sunrise in the ocean

Sheila Bonini, WWF Senior Vice President of Private Sector Engagement, said that “sometimes an issue can go on for a long time and nothing happens; then, suddenly, boom! The world wakes up, and we have the opportunity to drive change.”

As sun rises every single day, reducing our dependence over plastics will not be easy, nor would it be the longer we wait. We should have nothing but a clear end goal demanding everybody’s sacrifice: to save aquatic lives, the aquatic world, and our environment.

We must ban plastics out of the ocean. We must minimize our dependence on plastics.

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