Malacca Strait Trash & the Need for a “Global Convention on Plastic and Fishing Gear Pollution.”

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Every year after the finish of the Volvo Ocean Race, participants speak out about the amount of garbage they encountered on the oceans. It has become a recurring topic, sometimes narrow-mindedly concentrating on how the trash slows the participants down or the threat large pieces posse to their boats, but more and more, also about the degradation of the oceans and the danger to wildlife.

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These sailors regularly claim the worse place for debris is the Malacca Strait. One of the skippers said after the 2015 race that one “could walk across that stretch of water on the trash.” That might be an exaggeration, but as the accompanying photos show, the amount of waste encountered there is huge. As part of a crew on motorized vessels I usually enter the Strait from the port of Singapore with its bunker facilities, follow the coast of Malaysia roughly northwest, far enough out to avoid the coastal fishing boats and their nets, and 850 kilometers later leave the strait over the northern tip of the Indonesian island Sumatra, between its small satellites Pulau Weh and Pulau Rondo. 

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All the way, when the weather is calm, rafts of wood, plastic and rubbish even show up on radar. The garbage islands are often held together by discarded nets, and pose a threat to smaller yachts and fishing boats. We, on bigger ships, just try to avoid getting fishing gear in our propellers.

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The United Nations Environment Program estimates that more than 15,000 vessels pass through the Strait every day and these certainly account for part of the trash, either deliberately dumped overboard or washed off the deck in a tropical downpour  after careless stowing; more waste will come from the fleets of fishing vessels that ply the Strait, but it is generally assumed that about 80% of the ocean trash has its origin on land, blown to sea by the wind or washed out to it with rivers and run off.

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One reason this stretch of water is particularly polluted is that on both sides of the Strait an enormous population lives with a general attitude to waste typical of former third world nations that have rapidly developing economies in which waste management laggs behind. According to the New Strait Times, from 2003 to 2013, Malaysia’s municipal solid waste recorded an increase of 91%.

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General custom combined with a lack of education means that the habit of just discarding spent items where they became useless – waste that used to consist of perishable materials like banana leaf packaging, palm leaf roofing, bamboo containers, twine fishing gear, cocos fiber rope and wood construction material – has continued, even though the materials today are made out of everlasting, poisonous, chocking, entangling plastics.

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The trash I tried to photograph, floating by, parted by the bow, consisted of food- and candy-wrapping plastics, other packaging material, cigarette butts and lighters, beer & soda cans, water bottles and their caps, plastic bags, balloons, flip-flops, etc. 

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Plastic never goes away; it does not biodegrade. It only breaks up into micro- and nano-plastics that will either sink to the bottom or end up in the food chain, from zooplankton, to fish, to sea and coastal birds and marine mammals, all the way into the human fish-eater’s bloodstream.

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Ocean plastics are as big an environmental and health problem as DDT and PCBs, as CFCs and Mercury, as Sulphur in marine fuel. In line with these problems addressed – though not yet solved – by the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants, IMO’s 2020 global sulphur limit, or the Minamata Convention on mercury, we need a “Global Convention on Plastic and Fishing Gear Pollution.”

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Naturally you can and should start ‘a better world’ at home: 

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-Refuse plastic straws at bars and restaurants and plastic bags at shops; look with all your purchases at both the packaging and the materials the desired product itself is made of, and, in the first place, if you really need that item. 

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-Recycle what you can’t or don’t want to avoid.

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-Besides working on personal awareness, educate others and fight on local and national levels for a ban on plastic straws, shopping bags, balloons, packaging, and all the other trivial, unnecessary items made of plastic. 

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-We, through responsible government, need to levy taxes on producers who use plastics giving them an incentive to look for more sustainable, environmentally friendly options.

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-As a conscious society we need to break the power of the oil industry, the suppliers and investors of the plastic industry, by weaning ourselves of fossil fuels.

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There are some efforts and even more plans to clean up the oceans; however, nothing will be more effective than cutting off the constant stream of plastic into the environment at the source. 

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