Welcome to Ground Zero of the Ocean Plastic Pollution Crisis
My alarm goes off at 4am. In an hour, I along with members of Greenpeace Germany, Greenpeace Philippines and Greenpeace Canada will be getting into a van and on our way to Freedom Island – a bird sanctuary in Manila, Philippines. There we will be conducting a series of beach cleans followed by an audit of the different brands that we find. Freedom Island is an uninhabited island that serves as a nature reserve and bird sanctuary. Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped rubbish from the Pasig River travelling down into Manila Bay and washing up on Freedom Island’s shores.
With up to 12 million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year, plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats that our oceans face. Most of the plastic entering our oceans comes from land-based sources and Southeast Asia is at the epicentre of the crisis.
It was with a mixture of excitement and anxiety that I approached Freedom Island on my first day of the brand audit. When I first got onto the island, I was shocked by the amount of litter I saw. And it was all plastic. The layers are so thick is some places that you can dig down for a meter and come across layer upon layer of plastic waste mixed with sand. It was a bit overwhelming to take it all in. But I gathered a bag and gloves and began to collect items.
As we began to walk to the designated beach clean area, we kept coming across shiny red bottle tops. Coca Cola bottles tops to be exact.
Coca Cola are the largest soft drinks company in the world. Globally, they produce over 100 billion single use plastic bottles each year and billions of these are ending up on our beaches, in landfill and in the sea. But instead of reducing the number of single use bottles it produces, Coke is investing in more throwaway plastic. This is why we’ve been calling on Coca Cola to reduce their plastic footprint and to stop choking our oceans.
We were originally told that it would be unlikely to find Coca Cola branded bottles on Manila beaches. Not because they don’t’ exist but because the local waste warriors would have already picked them up because they are able to sell those bottles for money. To our surprise, we found lots of Coke bottles, bottle tops and bottle labels. In two hours, we managed to collect enough to send a message to Coke.
Whilst this looks like quite the haul of Coke products, it was barely scratches the surface of the plastic found on the beach. There was so much plastic pollution on the beach that we were startled to find actual wildlife on the beach. It doesn’t look like anything can thrive in this environment and from the numbers of dead fish we found washed ashore – including one wrapped in a plastic bag – they aren’t.
Manila Bay is so polluted that the area the group cleaned up the day before was already covered in new plastic pollution that washed ashore from the bay. Whilst it is a frustrating sight to see, it also illustrates a bigger point. Plastic pollution is so extensive in our environment that it requires urgent action from everyone – individuals, governments and the companies producing these materials must act now.
It also says something about single use plastic items themselves. They seem very convenient, cheap and that they make our lives easier. But they never really go away. It take plastic hundreds of years to degrade in in the marine environment. Larger plastics break down into microplastics which harm wildlife. Some studies show that 90% of seabirds and 1 in 3 turtles have ingested plastic. Plastic is everything from our seafood to our seas salt. It is entering our food chain and polluting our oceans creating heart-breaking scenes like what we found in Manila beach.
But all is not lost. It has been very inspiring to work with the waste warriors and our allies in Manila to clean the beaches and conduct the brand audit. We’ve had help from local schools and celebrities to raise awareness around the issue with individual pledges to reduce one’s plastic footprint but also a call for companies like Coca Cola reduce their plastic footprint. The brand audit will continue until 20 September with the results released on 22 September.
Nothing that we use for a few minutes should pollute our environment for hundreds of years. Individual efforts to address ocean plastic pollution are necessary but we shouldn’t forget that businesses are responsible for the end life of their products. Together, we all can work to end ocean plastics.
About Tisha Brown
I am a campaigner on the oceans team.