|Workers ride past a garbage dump as they return home along highway 5, near Hanoi. Photo: Reuters
It's so easy to get a plastic bag in Vietnam. It is around your smallest grocery purchase, fruit on the street and banh mi before you know it. People look very surprised if I refuse a plastic bag on the street or in the supermarket.
And unfortunately, the problem is not just here. Over five trillion plastic bags are consumed around the planet every year (that's right, 12 zero's). That's a million bags per second, and it's getting more every day. Only a small part of this huge pile of oil-based waste gets to be recycled, but the most of it ends up in the oceans via rivers, gets dumped in nature or burned.
We use a plastic bag for an average of 15 minutes and throw it away. Only a small part of this huge pile of oil-based waste gets to be recycled, but the most of it ends up being burned, dumped in nature or the oceans via rivers. It is estimated that 12 million kilograms of plastic enter the oceans, every day.
Only a few governments around the world are taking action against the free distribution of the ubiquitous plastic bag, like China, Bangladesh, Australia and Israel. But this kind of action is rare and must come from companies (like supermarkets) and even more so, citizens themselves. Saying no to plastic bags and taking your own reusable bag with you is the easiest way to stop this plastic madness, which is killing us slowly.
Why is this a problem for us, you might ask. For one thing, burned plastic releases all kinds of dangerous chemicals into the air, like dioxin which causes cancer. But the even bigger problem is the plastic that ends up in the food chain. That's right, our food chain as well.
Plastic brakes down into tiny little pieces in water and remains in its form for a thousand years. The fish we eat already contain a high amount of chemicals and toxins. Other animals die of starvation because they see plastic bags or particles as food (they look like squid or jellyfish).
More than 17 kilograms of plastic were found in the belly of a recently beached whale that died in Spain. Turtles, dolphins and fish face the same horrific ending. Birds like the magnificent Albatros are also dropping in numbers because of this. It is estimated that as much as 40 percent of all new hatchlings (little Albatrosses) die because of starvation caused by plastic consumption. That's 200,000 dead birds every year, and that's only one species. Of all the birds that die, people find an average of 30 plastic particles in their bellies. After the bird dies, the plastic lives on for a thousand years and becomes smaller and smaller until it's in our food as well.
The fish we eat already contain a high amount of toxins, now it also contains little plastic particles that contain dangerous chemicals like Bisphenol A. Indigenous people of Greenland who depend entirely on fish and marine-animals for food are proven to be more at risk to get cancer, birth defects and infertility. These problems didn't exist before the wide use of plastic.
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There are huge patches of plastic garbage floating in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. They even made up a name for it: the plastic soup. After sixty years since the invention of plastic, it has become the size of the entire USA. That's actually two USA's, one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic Ocean. It's called soup because you don't only see it floating on top of the water, but more of it is underwater. There are 100 little plastic particles to be found in every square of seawater these days.
It's called soup because you don't only see it floating on top of the water, but more of it is underwater. There are many little plastic particles to be found in every square of seawater these days. Some particles are so small that it's hard to see with your eye. In some parts of the oceans the amount of micro-plastic is 30 times more than plankton the staple food of the bottom of the food chain. Many small animals eat a mix of plankton and plastic. Micro plastic attracts toxic chemicals like PCB's (polychloorbifenylen) and POP's (persistent organic pollutants) which are stored in the fat of the animals.
Aren't there bigger problems? May be so, but not so many that you can actually personally take on in an easy way. Don't wait for the government or old ladies scraping only some clean plastic out of your waste. Take action!
In the Netherlands, my own country, people are taking action. Supermarkets have decided to stop giving away the little plastic bags. Now you can only buy a reusable bag. I hope the people of Vietnam will also participate and start seeing the consequences of this huge problem. It shocked me to see so many little plastic bags being used and thrown away after five minutes without thinking. In supermarkets here in Vietnam and other Asian countries, they wrap your groceries for you. But the bags are small, so you need a whole lot of them, every time. If only people would take their own bags with them and say no to plastic bags. It's that easy.
By Jan Logjes (The story can be found in the May 3rd issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
* The writer is a Dutch entrepreneur who lives in Hanoi.
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