Beached Plastic: What a Waste

One of thousands of pieces of trash on My Khe beach. Note the writing.

One of thousands of pieces of trash on My Khe beach. Note the writing.

Rude Awakening

The first time I saw it in full force was on a tiny, remote island in Thailand called Koh Lipe. Overnight, changing ocean currents had vomited thousands of pieces of litter along the beach, a stretch of chalk-white sand ringed by turquoise water and nationally protected coral reefs. The trash was jarringly incongruous with the surroundings, so I began picking it up to ‘properly’ dispose of it.

The locals were quick to point out the Sisyphean nature of the task, since the trash came and went with the tides and currents. On top of that, there weren’t any proper waste disposal facilities so the trash would just have to be burned—hardly an improvement on the situation.

They were right, of course. I was confused at first as to where the trash had even come from, but its origin became clear upon inspection: it had come from everywhere.

The closest major city to the island is more than a hundred miles away. The plastic soup that washed up on the beach, however, had often come from much farther than that. Labels on the discarded plastic bore witness to its journey: the writing was in Burmese, or Bengali, or Bahasa Malaysia or Indonesia, or Tamil, or Telugu, or of course Thai. I didn’t even recognize half the languages I saw—I had to look them up.

True to the predictions, a high tide did wash out the trash, leaving the island again looking postcard-perfect. This scenario was to play out several times over the following weeks.

everywhere, all the time

That was nearly ten years ago. Fast forward to today, and I’ve seen this same situation countless times in countless places. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Yesterday it was Da Nang. The beach was strewn with debris: bottles, bottle caps, fishing nets, shoes, cans, toothbrushes, and any number of unidentifiable bits of refuse. It was impossible to get a photo that captured the extent of it. Tourists frolicked in the waves on a surprisingly sunny December day, either ignoring the trash or immune to its sight. Trash washing up on the beach is fairly common, after all.

Cleanup crews were out, raking trash to take it away. Much of this trash showed signs of distant origins: indeed, a large part of the waste had labels written in Chinese, and much of it had clearly spent enough time at sea to become home to unfortunate mollusks, now stranded on the beach.

Part of the cleanup crew on the beach

Part of the cleanup crew on the beach

The shellfish were all writhing, looking like something from a zombie film.

The shellfish were all writhing, looking like something from a zombie film.

That so much of the trash was covered in sea creatures served as a stark reminder of how much time it had spent at sea, only to be washed up by strong currents dragging it from the bottom of the ocean. One wonders how much of this trash remains at depth, unseen.

Side note: I’ve also wondered what it must be like to be one of the sadly now-famous Sentinelese. They almost certainly have encountered trash tides—I can’t imagine how bewildered they must be at the sight.

out of sight, out of hand

A man, obviously concerned, picked up a stray shard of glass. I watched as he walked a few steps away, scratched his head, and dropped it into a crab hole. It’s hard to imagine a more apt metaphor for the situation: the sharp object was just out of sight but still present, buried shallow enough to be more dangerous than if it were visible, and intruded on the home of local wildlife.

Living on the coast makes it impossible to ignore the slow-motion plastic disaster we’ve created. I say ‘we’ because this is a worldwide problem we’re all part of. I’m hardly free of guilt: I just finished eating yogurt from a disposable plastic container and I’ll probably do it again tomorrow. Escaping plastic is near impossible. What are we going to do?

The first step, as they say, is admitting there’s a problem. Changing our relationship with plastic—single-use plastic, the kind that washes up on beaches—is going to require a sea change (no pun intended) in the way the market functions. Whether this change is accomplished through collective consumer action or through government fiat remains to be seen, though success stories usually rely on a combination of the two.

a quick fix or the real deal?

Plenty of countries and individual parts of countries have taken steps to fight plastic waste. The plastic bag has rightfully long been a bogeyman of conspicuous pollution. For whatever reason, plastic bags seem to have a sex life and multiply like insects once released into the wild. The worst litter problems I’ve ever seen were in Cambodia, and plastic bags were an enormous part of that. I took to calling them Cambodian tumbleweeds after a while.

But Cambodia has since added a tax on plastic bags in a bid to help curb their proliferation. Other countries have taken a similar or even a more aggressive tack: France has banned plastic bags from retailers, as have Chile, China, and several African countries. Even my hometown of Austin banned plastic bags until the state Supreme Court said that the city wasn’t fit to make its own rules and overturned the decision, allowing plastic bag use to continue.

It’s easy to congratulate oneself for reducing the amount of plastic bags being used because alternatives exist. However, plastic bags are just one item in a much longer list of other single-use plastic items. Look around you-—how many pieces of plastic do you see that will become trash in your immediate vicinity? Personally, I can count seven and I’m not even looking that hard. None of those future-trash items are plastic bags.

mass-produced into a corner

How much more would yogurt, or water, or potato chips, or instant noodles, or a million other common food items cost if they had to be packaged in glass or paper or some as-yet-unknown miracle substance as cheap and sanitary as plastic? We’d have to reinvent the whole system of food distribution. And would it result in any cleaner of an environment in the long run?

Plastic is ubiquitous because it’s unique. It’s cheap, light, sterile, flexible, and waterproof. What on Earth would replace it at the moment? I honestly don’t know.

In previous posts I’ve expressed my distaste for government intrusion into private affairs. In this case, however, I do support coercive measures to a degree—because plastic pollution is far from a private affair. Instead, it’s all too public.

It’s clear that the free market alone is not enough to solve the problem of plastic waste, and I sympathize with why: both producers and consumers are happy with low prices and convenience. It sounds like a win-win scenario until the long-term consequences are considered.

Preaching to the choir: converts needed

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re already aware of the problem at hand. Unfortunately, I don’t have any quick solutions—I wish I did. Getting people to come around to the idea that we need to rethink the whole system of product manufacturing, distribution, or waste collection is an enormous task and certainly requires more than individual effort.

I hope that future generations will come to see our current relationship with disposable plastic as antediluvian madness, like how we see whale hunting, witch trials, and phrenology now. I also hope it doesn’t take a disaster of biblical proportions to get us there.

Sam McCommonComment