Dr Sandra Whitehouse is a Doctor of Philosophy, a Marine Biologist and a senior policy advisor with Ocean Conservancy. While she was here in Vietnam talking to different Government bodies about ocean plastics and marine debris, both in the oceans and river systems, she found time to visit with a group of grade five and six UNIS Hanoi students.
Dr Whitehouse made it clear that the problem of plastic entering the world’s oceans is something that can be fixed in 10 to 15 years. She also explained that the issues of plastic and other debris aren’t simple ones. For example, she is often asked why people don’t get rid of plastic water bottles and go back to glass bottles. “The simple answer, in most cases, is the cost of the ‘carbon footprint’ on the climate and a more comprehensive solution to the problems are recycling and reusing.
Dr Whitehouse explained that Ocean Conservancy and corporate companies are actively looking for ways to reduce waste that is environmentally damaging, through an initiative called the ‘Trash Free Seas Alliance’. Working closely with large corporate companies such as Coca Cola, DOW, WWF, Walmart and AMCOR, to name a few, to bring about change in production and strengthen their responsibility for product disposal, is a high priority.
Another subject in Dr Whitehouse’s presentation was Government spending. The amount of money spent by Governments to support waste management systems is minute compared to money spent on other areas such as schools, water and sanitation, and infrastructure.
Students had the opportunity to ask Dr Whitehouse questions.
Where is all this plastic coming from?
There are two major sources of ocean plastic. 20 percent is actually still coming from sea-based human activities, direct dumping of plastic in garbage off of boats, fishing gear that’s either been lost or improperly discarded, or from containers spilled into the ocean. But what we also know is that 80 percent of plastic is originating from the land from human activities there, and, in that case, it’s from a number of different sources. We now know that the 50 percent of the leakage of plastic into the ocean is currently coming from five rapidly developing countries in Asia and Southeast Asia, and those are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
According to Dr Whitehouse, about 66 percent of wildlife is impacted by marine debris either by damaging digestive tracts, poisoning, or entanglement, and about 8 million metric tons of plastic is getting into the ocean every day; 80 percent coming from land-based activities. Much of the problem is caused by direct dumping due to the lack of waste facilities. So while some countries are producing more plastic, 99 percent ends up in landfills, whereas developing countries such as Indonesia and China don’t have the proper facilities and necessary management.
What is the solution?
“There isn’t one single solution,” Dr Whitehouse said, explaining that there’s a process and some countries struggle with one specific aspect or another, whether that’s collecting the trash or providing a landfill for dumping. “They’ll need to be tailored for each country.” Dr Whitehouse explained that the Ocean Conservancy is working to solve plastic production and disposal issues from the home, to waste management systems such as landfills.
Dr Whitehouse reminded students that part of solving this worldwide problem was in their hands too. By continuing to be well informed about these issues, spreading awareness and educating others. “You are our future and without you, we don’t have a chance to fix these problems”.