With a little help from technology

Hakim Hayat

Plastic was only invented in 1907, and mass production started between 1940s and 1950s. Unfortunately for our oceans, every bit of plastic that was ever created still exists in some form as it takes hundreds of years to decompose, and even when it does, it merely turns into micro pieces and then microfibres.

According to statistics compiled by National Geographic, 300 million tonnes of plastic gets created yearly, weighing the same as the entire human population, and 50 per cent is single-use only.

The report said that an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year while there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste estimated to be in the oceans.

It is said that 269,000 tonnes float, four billion microfibres per km² dwell below the surface, 70 per cent of debris sinks into the ocean’s ecosystem, 15 per cent floats and 15 per cent lands on the beaches.

The statistics available in Brunei from the Department of Environment, Parks and Recreation (JASTRe) in 2019 said that over 297,218 metric tonnes (MT) of waste was generated in Brunei Darussalam, of which only 11.3 per cent was recycled.

The remainder mainly ended up in landfills.

As it stands, an average person in Brunei generates 1.14 kilogrammes of municipal solid waste per day, based on 2019 data, making the Sultanate among the highest waste generators per capita in the ASEAN region.

The top four compositions of municipal solid waste disposed at the Sungai Paku Engineered Landfill are: 32 per cent food waste; 29 per cent plastic; 11 per cent green; and 10 per cent paper.

On World Oceans Day this year, which took place on June 8, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and partners launched an e-learning course to help reduce the impact of plastic pollution.

As part of the Closing the Loop project, the course, entitled ‘Cities and Marine Plastic Pollution: Building a Circular Economy’, demonstrated state-of-the-art technologies and techniques that can measure and monitor plastic waste in urban and marine environments. The course is available as an open-source knowledge product for anyone wishing to learn more about taking measures to ensure clear waters for future generations.

“The vision of ESCAP is to engage all sectors, particularly academia and the scientific community, to support the development of the science we need for the oceans we want,” said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana.

“Collaborate, starting with linking to the Closing the Loop project. If you have a solution or technology to prevent and manage plastic pollution, we want to talk to you.”

Ensuring that the course considers multiple vantage points, it has been co-developed with 10 global partners, including Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and the Ocean Conservancy.

Closing the Loop also works with several Japanese agencies including the Institute for Global Studies (IGES) and is supported by the Government of Japan as part of its effort to realise the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision. This platform, developed at the G20 summit in Osaka in 2019, aims to bring marine plastic litter to zero by 2050.

“Plastic marine litter is one of today’s most serious emerging issues and without any countermeasures, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050, posing a threat to the environment and our way of life,” said Ambassador of Japan to Thailand Kazuya Nashida. “It is said that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased pollution from disposable products, such as plastic face masks and hand sanitiser bottles. To counteract this, we must work together to identify sources and pathways to reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste.”

The e-learning course content is focussed on Closing the Loop’s digital tool kit being developed with partners using innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), satellites, drones and machine learning to measure and monitor plastic waste in urban waterways. This technology can pinpoint the ‘source to sea’ movement of how plastic leaks into the marine environment from cities and help shape effective action plans to put an end to it
for good.

The toolkit includes a virtual map of ocean-bound plastics using artificial intelligence, a plastic pollution calculator that identifies plastic leakage ‘hotspots’ and a data platform to share knowledge. These technologies can be adapted for different cities or communities, and the aim is for these resources to be widely used to track and reduce marine plastic waste.

These tools and the eLearning course have been developed with partners like The International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Marine Litter Task Force, the University of Leeds, Plymouth Marine Lab and Japan Space Systems.