Turning back the trash tsunami

opinion March 20, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Illegal dumping threatens to turn our seas and beaches into a toxic mix of oil and plastic garbage; we need stronger rules to protect Thai waters

Visitors to Bang Saen Beach, the popular weekend getaway in Chon Buri, recently suffered skin irritation after swimming in seawater tainted with oil. A passing ship has likely dumped the oil in the water.
This isn’t the first case of suspected dumping by ships in Thai waters. The large amounts of garbage that wash ashore on our islands and the junk routinely seen on the seabed by divers offer evidence that the practice is common. 
Disposing of waste at sea has been a serious problem for decades. In 1973 the United Nations’ International Maritime Organisation adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol), in an effort to cut the damage being done to marine and shore environments. 
Marpol has since been amended to prohibit the disposal of all kinds of garbage in the sea. The latest amendment, which came into effect in January last year, bans the dumping of almost all solid waste, including cardboard, rags, glass, cans, paper and many other items that could previously be jettisoned with impunity. 
But evidence is rife of flagrant and frequent violations of the new rules. 
Recently a former employee of a European cruise operator leaked video of a colleague throwing large black bags full of garbage into the ocean while the cruise ship was sailing off the coast of Brazil. Two months ago a cruise passenger posted a clip of what looked like illegal dumping. Passengers on another cruise filmed crewmembers throwing trash over the side in a Florida marine reserve. As a result, the operator of the ship was fined $500,000.
A modern cruise liner produces about eight tonnes of solid waste every week. Much of this garbage takes years to decompose. Aluminium cans take 200 to 500 years to break down in seawater, plastic bottles around 450 years. The UN Environment Programme estimates that there are 13,000 pieces of plastic trash floating in every square kilometre of ocean. The US-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently reported that virtually one out of every 10 fish in the ocean has plastic waste in its stomach. Researchers from Tokyo University have verified that cancer-causing compounds found in plastic are widespread in seawaters. There is now concern that plastic chemicals are making their way up the food chain and into the seafood we eat.
International rules to prevent dumping at sea exist, but affected countries must also draft and enforce effective local laws if they want to keep their waters clean.
Companies that operate ships who are found guilty of using the sea as a garbage dump should face severe penalties, including steep fines. People who witness such dumping can help the law enforcers by recording it on their mobile phone or other portable devices. 
But this problem will not go away unless all of us, perpetrators included, are made more aware of the damage that dumping does to marine life and the humans who depend on the sea. It is the health and wellbeing of humans that will eventually suffer if, by inaction, we permit our seas to be trashed.