By Arjun Subramanian
On a drizzly November 2nd evening in Berkeley, my family and I attended Stiv Wilson’s talk at the local Ecology Center. Stiv is Director of Campaigns at the Story of Stuff Project, which aims to reduce the amount of stuff we use by pursuing a solution-oriented approach.
Stiv spoke about the horrors of waste pollution from his experience in three Southeast Asian nations: China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. He also spoke about what the people there are doing to combat this problem, and finally, what we can do about it.
I left Stiv’s speech with three key learnings:
- Southeast Asia is disproportionately affected by the problem of waste, especially plastic pollution.
- Southeast Asian nations are beginning to change the way they deal with plastic.
- Simple solutions can be more effective than high-tech ones.
Take-away 1: Southeast Asia is disproportionately affected by the problem of waste, especially plastic pollution.
According to Public Radio International1, 60 percent of the world’s plastic waste comes from 5 nations in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, China, and the Philippines. Stiv showed this picture of Manila Bay, full of plastic waste. This picture truly shows how serious this problem is. I did not realize how bad this problem is in Southeast Asia until I saw this photograph. In addition to the amount of waste these nations produce, they also receive plastic from developed nations, such as the United States. Incidentally, Berkeley, where we were, is one of those cities which has managed to reach zero waste.
Take-away 2: Southeast Asian nations are beginning to change the way they deal with plastic.
Stiv said that China, on the one hand, has put up a “Green Fence”. This means that it does not accept plastic waste from other nations, namely the United States. This will eventually force the United States to rethink its waste management strategies.
On the other hand, China does not effectively manage its waste. Stiv said that the Beijing municipalities are warming up to the idea that incineration is an effective solution to combat the sheer amount of plastic waste. This is problematic, as burning plastic in their own municipalities releases harmful toxins into the air. As a workaround, these municipalities strategically build incineration plants at the edges of their district to pass clean air level tests. However, the toxic waste and fumes now flow out into neighboring districts aided by wind patterns. A tricky way to pass the buck downstream!
Take-away 3: Simple solutions can be more effective than high-tech ones.
Stiv said that the simplest solutions may be just as effective as technologically superior ones.
During his experience in Indonesia, Stiv met with a scientist-activist. This gentleman (shown on the right) has been responsible for removing used diapers from waterways, which cause irreversible damage to river and marine life. The reason people dump their used diapers in rivers is due to a superstition that incineration of a used diaper will cause a baby to have bad fortune. The only solution to this problem, as Stiv noted, is education and that is what this scientist-activist is doing starting with his local government.
Stiv also talked about a success story he documented during his experience in the Philippines. Sonia Mendoza, part of the Mother Earth Foundation (picture on the left), devised a zero-waste collection and recycling system which is 85% cheaper than the current model. While not as technologically advanced as the current model, Mendoza’s model has effectively cleaned up many village-towns (barangays) throughout the Philippines. Stiv touted this as an example for us to follow.
What Can We Do?
Stiv has documented the stories of all these people who have managed to stand up for the health of our planet, despite living in developing nations which have both local and imported plastics to contend with. If they can do it living there, so can we here, in the United States. Here are two steps we can take to stand up for the health of our land and water:
- Education: Educate and empower ourselves with knowledge. Learn about the perils of plastic. Here is a blog I wrote about the seven things you need to know about plastic pollution. You can get more information about pollution from the Story of Stuff Project and 5Gyres.
- Action: Make choices to reduce our daily use and output of plastic waste and participate in beach cleanups. Get involved with organizations like Story of Stuff Project and Heirs To Our Oceans which focus on education and youth empowerment worldwide.
On a personal note, my sister and I had the opportunity to meet Stiv after his talk. It was a pleasant moment when he recognized us as members from Heirs To Our Oceans, fondly recalling paneling with one of our members. He urged us to continue our efforts in protecting our oceans. We thanked him for his efforts and for the learnings from his presentation.
- “5 Countries Dump More Plastic into the Oceans than the Rest of the World Combined.” Public Radio International, www.pri.org/stories/2016-01-13/5-countries-dump-more-plastic-oceans-rest-world-combined.