Southeast Asia's Plastic Pollution is Poisoning the World's Oceans

Blogs - Vietnam: Nov. 7, 2017

In the index of things we should be worried about—global warming, misconduct by financial organisations, women's rights—plastic may rank low, if not for its boringness than for its apparent intractability. An issue that seems impossible to address in a meaningful manner demands way less cognitive energy. Just ignore it.


Actually, as a result of the Asia’s glut of plastic, “a loss of fertility has been seen in Japan and throughout Asia,” US plastics researcher Cassandra Phillips said—comments that confirm previous reporting done by #iAMHCMC on the declining birthrate in Vietnam.

Not having a baby? Sorry, plastics are still an issue for unburdened singles like yourself, too.

Swimming in the Plastic Soup

In a book Phillips co-authored titled Plastic Ocean—the book arguably responsible for popularising the name “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” for the oceanic plastic soup in the central-north Pacific Ocean—she described some of the emerging research that’s beginning to connect plastic with a raft of health issues.

plastic poisoningImage source: Trang

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Endocrine Society and the Autism Society all have “gone on record with concerns about suspected links between chemical exposures, also called environmental exposures, and a burgeoning array of chronic diseases and disorders,” she writes. “These so-called new morbidities include obesity, type 2 diabetes, autism, ADHD, asthma, thyroid disorders, and male infertility.

“Of special concern are exposures that cross placental barriers and appear to alter gene expression in the developing fetus.”

Next time you’re offered the chance to temporarily own a plastic bag (the ubiquitous white bags are used for an average of 12 minutes), consider that we are the responsible party for the plastic problem.

A group of five countries—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—is responsible for 60 percent of the plastic residue in the oceans, according to global management consultant firm McKinsey & Co.

A rise in plastics is actually kind of a good thing, the authors of Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies for a Plastic-Free Ocean, argue. More use of plastics corresponds to an increases in income and consumption. In this framing, Asia’s increased plastic use is a marker of economic health.

Think Before You Shop

But it’s bad news for the environment.

A “business as usual” projection from current plastic output puts 200 million tons of plastic in the ocean annually by 2025. That’s one ton of plastic to every three tons of fish.

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Once out in the wild, plastic isn’t just hanging out. That’s what Phillips thought before she undertook the research necessary to write her book. “I was buying the line that plastics were inert,” Phillips said.

She said her first insight into the dangers of that assumption were in her profession as a commercial orchid grower. She was raising orchids in plastic containers and remembers being shocked by how far her plants’ blooms were off schedule. Some were maturing too quickly, and some too slowly while some simply died.

Phillips writes in her book that plastics are “all bioactive. They’re detectable in virtually everything we breathe, eat, and touch, including each other. It’s as simple as that.

“And we are still in the early stages of learning how they may be affecting our health, despite studies numbering in the thousands and still being churned out, with no end in sight. It’s no exaggeration to say this subject could fill a book.”

To cut down on the plastic, Phillips offers what one may dismiss as too-small-to-matter: reject plastic straws and use reusable bags when you shop.

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There are more aggressive steps you can take: ridding your home of plastic serving utensils and kitchenware, for example. You could even pay a premium for something called a chemical body burden test, a series of lab tests that determine how much plastic and other toxic elements you’re carrying (spoiler: it’s probably a lot).

But, when queried for tips, Phillips offered small, do-able changes. The plastic problem is at a point where literally anything would be better than what we’re doing now. Phillips’ tips don’t require a revolution, so maybe curtailing the problem more broadly won’t either.

Banner image source: Alejandro Duran