Exploring Solutions to Plastic Pollution in Palau

By Dianna Cohen, CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition

We recently returned from the beautiful island country of Palau, located in the western Pacific Ocean, where Plastic Pollution Coalition co-hosted an expedition with Oceanic Society, Drifters Project, and Heirs to Our Oceans with support from Mission Blue, to work together with local Palauans to explore potential solutions to plastic pollution.

The Plastic Pollution Forum, hosted by Heirs to Our Oceans, was held at the end of the week, where representatives from three local high schools came together with visiting Heirs from the U.S., business leaders, educators, and elected officials to brainstorm solutions. Dr. Sylvia Earle was a special guest speaker at the Youth Forum and spoke to the great beauty of Palau as a mighty island country in the vast blue still unexplored Pacific Ocean.

The students were able to set some benchmarks for ways to reduce plastic pollution that they want to see come to fruition within the next year. One idea was to take a look at each of their own school’s plastic footprint and ways to reduce it.

Palau has a long history of advocating for the environment. The Rock Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Marine Protected Area, and the country banned single-use plastic bags last year. Over the summer, Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau signed an executive order banning single-use plastics from all government offices and agencies. In early November, Palau became the first country to ban harmful sunscreens that are toxic to coral reefs.

“Palau was surprisingly clear of plastic in the water—nothing like the amounts we saw and removed in Indonesia in 2016,” said Pamela Longobardi of Drifters Project and a PPC Support Artist Ally. “Several reasons could account for this: it’s a much smaller island chain, and Palau has made immense conservation steps in creating the vast marine sanctuary around it, which in turn has perhaps made the population more environmentally conscious.”

As part of the expedition, our groups participated in a beach cleanup and brand audit hosted by Heirs to Our Oceans with local Palauan students and business leaders. A fascinating find, in addition to the 77 single-use plastic cups labeled Aqua by Danone, was an old Coca-Cola bottle cap extolling it’s “quality product.” (Coca-cola was the number one plastic polluting company identified in the recent #breakfreefromplastic global cleanup and brand audit.)

As Pam noted, we found most of the plastic pollution in the forested shores and mangroves of the islands, which unfortunately makes it less visible and therefore less likely to be cleared.  

“The brand audit showed identifiable names on the items,” said Wayne Sentman of Oceanic Society. “It was also interesting to see that one of the items we frequently see in Indonesia beach clean ups—single-use servings of water labeled Aqua and produced by Danone were also abundant on the beaches of Palau. We wonder if this plastic has a local source or has washed up in Palau from Indonesia.”

Pam led a “forensic beach cleaning” training with the group, which was followed by plastic retrieval of material from hundred-meter ropes and nets down to micro-scale plastic, then sorting, counting, removing colored material for the creation of the art piece, and finally loading the bags onto the boats for transport.

“One of the most meaningful parts of the trip for me was working with the Palauan Heirs and citizens on a new version of the State of Koror flag made out of ocean plastic collected in a mass beach cleaning on a remote island,” said Pam. “We worked in the Public Works woodshop where dozens of kids from local high schools, park rangers, public works employees, local artists, and expedition guests all stopped by to contribute to its construction. The completed work was presented at the Plastic Pollution forum in the State House of Koror, where it will be permanently displayed. For me, it signified Palau’s commitment to becoming a Plastic Free Island. It was also shown to the President of Palau and the UN Ambassador of Palau, who were both very excited by the work.”

Wayne was similarly encouraged by the community and Palauan Heirs to Our Oceans members. “Over our time there it became obvious to us all that many of the young woman and men we worked with and got to know are destined to become leaders in their community. As a group, they were already organizing successful efforts to reduce single-use plastics in local stores and schools, and in general promoting awareness about the importance of protecting their marine environment.”

In addition to being inspired by the youth, we appreciated the opportunity to speak with the President Remengesau and his ministers about the plastic pollution reduction achievements the country has made so far and to brainstorm ideas together as Palau prepares to host the Our Ocean conference 2020.

We commend the Palauan government, the local Heirs, and business and community leaders and members for their great work and commitment to protect their environment, and we look forward to continued partnership toward a world free of plastic pollution.

Learn more about Plastic-Free Islands.

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Photo: Top corporate plastic polluters Coca-Cola, Unilever, P&G, PepsiCo, The Dow Chemical Company, sat alongside Ocean Conservancy and Circulate Capital at our #OurOcean2018 in Bali.

Earlier this week, Break Free From Plastic member groups called out corporations for refusing to take responsibility for their role in creating and perpetuating the plastic pollution crisis.

At a side-event organized by Ocean Conservancy and Circulate Capital, companies exposed as the world’s Top Polluters by the recent #breakfreefromplastic brand audit report committed funds to a new “catalytic capital fund” to “solve” the plastic pollution crisis. Coca-Cola, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and PepsiCo — all in the top 10 of corporate brands found on plastic pollution worldwide — sat alongside Dow, one of the world’s largest producers of plastic, as self-identified “frontrunning” corporate leaders working to tackle plastic pollution through improved waste management and technology.

At the same time, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance produced a simultaneous tangential Our Ocean Youth conference where John  Kerry, PPC CEO Dianna Cohen, and SOA founder Daniela Fernandez spoke at the opening welcome event.

The global plastic binge which is already causing widespread damage to oceans, habitats, and food chains, is set to increase dramatically over the next 10 years after multibillion dollar investments in a new generation of plastics plants in the U.S.

Global #breakfreefromplastic Coordinator Von Hernandez said: “Plastic is pollution the minute it is made. The problem with plastic pollution is not one of waste management or ocean leakage; rather, the problem is that there is simply too much plastic being pushed upon us by industry than can be safely and properly dealt with. In any crisis, the most important action is how you address the source of the problem.”

Break Free From Plastic representatives said if these companies are serious about addressing plastic pollution, they must significantly decrease and ultimately eliminate single-use plastics, and that a start would be for these corporations to disclose publicly the amount of plastic each of them is pushing into local markets and waste management systems across the world and accept regulations instead of making weak, voluntary commitments. This ‘catalytic capital’ would be better invested in alternative delivery systems for products which don’t require single-use or plastic overpackaging. (See Leadership Challenge to Corporate Plastic Polluters of #breakfreefromplastic)

PPC co-founder and CEO Dianna Cohen said: “It’s time to cut the greenwashing and bluewashing and hold corporations responsible for the single-use plastic products they create. Instead of making the same weak commitments, we call on Coca-Cola, Unilever, P&G, PepsiCo, The Dow Chemical Company, and others to reduce single-use plastic production. Only then will we have a healthy ocean and environment for all.”

Experts on the ground in cities and communities have already innovated on zero waste solutions to improve local collection and waste prevention systems, and expose problematic products. Examples can be found around the world — in the Philippines, Indonesia, India, across Europe, the US — for a fraction of the cost. For example, one zero waste project in the Philippines averages at $2.30 per person per year.

Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) has estimated that an initial influx of $30 million could provide zero waste programs for the entire Metro Manila area over two years. Corporations should be investing capital to support and replicate these solutions.

As the major contributors to the plastic pollution crisis, these companies should pursue true innovation in plastic reduction, instead of the same inadequate waste management approaches, said Break Free From Plastic.

At the close of the conference, Abigail Aguilar, of Greenpeace Philippines said: “It is urgent that corporations reduce their out of control production of plastic packaging. And the #breakfreefromplastic movement commits to holding them accountable until they do.”

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The comprehensive report, Ocean Pollutants Guide: Toxic Threats to Human and Marine Life, recently released by IPEN and the National Toxics Network (NTN), provides an up to date synthesis of data on toxic chemical ocean pollution, including hazardous pesticides, pharmaceuticals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like PCBs, plastics, microplastics, and heavy metals and exposes their sweeping impacts on marine and human life.

Read the report.

The report details how an array of highly persistent chemical pollutants are adversely affecting the reproduction and behavior of marine animals, impacting their immune systems, affecting their ability to respond to disease and reducing their survival. It sheds light on how microplastics in animal digestive system adversely affect health as microplastic exposure can induce oxidative stress (the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body), impacting energy and lipid metabolism, and create neurotoxic effects. From the algae and sea grasses that serve as the “world’s lungs,” to the fish that provide protein sustenance to two-thirds of the world’s population, including most of the world’s poor, the report describes increased marine contamination, increased human exposures, and risk for a host of illnesses, and ecosystem collapse.

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Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup published the first estimate of plastic emissions from rivers into the world’s oceans on June 7. In a piece for Nature Communications, researchers calculated that rivers annually transport between 1.15 and 2.41 million metric tons of plastic waste into our oceans.

“Two-thirds of this input comes from the 20 most polluting rivers, most of which are located on the Asian continent,” writes The Ocean Cleanup in a press release. “The distribution of plastic in the oceans can only be mapped if the main sources of plastic pollution are known. By pinpointing these sources, The Ocean Cleanup can target the best possible locations in the ocean for the deployment of its cleanup systems. Additionally, knowledge about the sources of plastic pollution can aid prevention efforts.

Check out the interactive map illustrating the flow of plastics from rivers to the oceans.

We’re pleased to see how many initiatives have been taken in the past few years to raise awareness of the ocean pollution problem. However, for our work in the deep ocean to succeed in the long run, it’s crucial that governments and other organizations speed up their efforts to mitigate the sources of the problem we aim to resolve. The results of this latest study can assist with those efforts.

— Boyan Slat

“It is commonly accepted that most plastic found in the oceans originates from land-based sources. It is also well known that rivers play a particularly important role in transporting mismanaged plastic waste from land into the ocean. Until now, however, researchers had quantified neither the total amount of plastic flowing out of the world’s rivers, nor how much plastic is emitted by each individual river. With today’s study, this information is now available.”

Researchers created a model for the study using global geospatial information on population density, waste management, topography, hydrography, and the locations of dams. Of the 40,760 ocean-bound rivers studied, just 20 are responsible for two-thirds of the global plastic input. The model also shows that plastic input from rivers is highly correlated with drainage of debris from the river banks and creeks leading into main waterways, and that this river-to-ocean input therefore varies per season. Researchers concluded that three quarters of the plastic released annually enters the oceans between May and October.

In a statement, Boyan Slat, Founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup said: “We’re pleased to see how many initiatives have been taken in the past few years to raise awareness of the ocean pollution problem. However, for our work in the deep ocean to succeed in the long run, it’s crucial that governments and other organizations speed up their efforts to mitigate the sources of the problem we aim to resolve. The results of this latest study can assist with those efforts.”

See also: The Institution of Plastic: We need a cultural reformation, not just clean-up

Read the facts about plastic pollution. 

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