Plastic Pollution in Southeast Asia

Learn about marine pollution and its impact on biodiversity. In session 3 of the ‘Thursday Talk Shop Series’, we cross borders! Education Officers speak with Mohammad Reza Cordova, a researcher in the Research Centre for Oceanography, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) about his work as a marine waste researcher. Mr. Marcus Chua, Museum Officer and curator of Mammal & Bird Collections at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM), makes a guest appearance (13:55) to share his experience when dissecting the sperm whale that was discovered off Jurong Island on 10 July 2015 and also tells us about the marine trash found inside the stomach of this marine mammal.

Participants found this session very insightful since we discuss the impacts of plastic pollution in Singapore and around the region. One participant specified that “the various infographics on pollutant levels in and around Singapore and the pictures of sea life affected by marine plastic help drive home the point about pollution and its adverse effects”, while another appreciated the “relevant, interesting and easily digestible information”.

Here is the recording of this session:


We played a quiz during this session, click here (for the Session 3 quiz) to try it out once you’ve watched the recording!

Questions and Answers
Here are some questions that were asked during the session:

The most efficient way to remove existing plastics in our oceans would be to target the source. Most of the microplastics in the oceans come from the primary source, microfiber or micro beads. If we can stop using these primary sources, micro plastics would be removed from our oceans efficiently. As for macro plastics, reducing the consumption of single-use plastics would help the situation greatly. Ways to reduce single-use plastics include bringing a reusable bag for grocery runs and having a reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled waters.

Not all plastics can be recycled. There are 2 types of plastics: thermoset vs. thermoplastics. Thermoplastics can be re-melted and remolded into new products, and therefore, recycled. However, thermoset plastics contain polymers that cross-link to form an irreversible chemical bond. They cannot be remelted into new material and hence, non-recyclable.

We can also identify the recyclability of a plastic item via Resin Identification Code (RIC), the number enclosed within a triangle that appears on many plastic items. There are seven specific RIC codes, the lower the number, the more likely the particular plastic product can be recycled.

Most importantly, dirty plastic cannot be recycled.

Recycling helps to reduce energy usage and consumption of fresh raw materials to make new products. It also helps to reduce the pollution caused by waste. Nonetheless, recycling should be the last resort solution to reduce plastic consumption. This is because not 100% of the plastic human produced can be recycled. Also, the quality of the recycled plastic is only 70% of the original plastic quality. Hence, in order for it to become a real solution, the current recycling technology needs to be more efficient.

As research is still ongoing, hypothetically, it depends on the chemical composition of the microplastics. Polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, is one of the more dangerous chemical compositions. It has the ability to attach to another pollutant due to the additives found in the microplastics. Usually it is not the microplastic that is harmful, it is the pollutants that get attached to them that are possibly harmful to the body. Examples of these pollutants that could cause DNA damage include PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls), methylates and the heavy metals.

Research is still ongoing for the effects of micro plastics on human health. However, current research data has shown that micro plastics can be found in human’s body – human stools and lungs. Nonetheless, the effects are still to be researched on.

Most countries export waste as they lack the capacity to reuse, recycle and recover all of its plastic waste. It is also a cheaper option for developed countries to ship these waste to developing countries to be recycled than to do it themselves. For countries who import waste, this recycling industry has proven to be rather profitable. Through simple processing, these recycled plastic pellets can be sold to manufacturing industries in need for cheap raw material.

It depends on the area too. In the United States and Europe, around 50% of the fishing nets are left behind. In these countries, including Japan, if fishermen find a more than 50 cm wide hole in the nets, these fishing nets will be discarded and left behind. In other regions, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Africa, the fishermen would recycle, repair and reuse the broken fishing nets instead of discarding them.

Not all biodegradable food packaging effectively helps to tackle plastic waste. Most biodegradable packaging used are oxo-degradable plastics. These plastics degrade fast but the problem is, they degrade into tiny plastic pieces, and become a source for secondary microplastics. The key is to use natural-based packaging, that are able to compost naturally and not degrade into microplastics.

During beach clean-ups we remove a proportion of the marine debris by picking up macro plastic and trash on the beach. This helps prevent these trash pieces from entangling marine life or being eaten up by other organisms. Beach clean-ups are an important action-based solution that help increase awareness about pollution issues and educate the community. As people change their lifestyles to reduce the usage of single-use plastic and other disposable plastic materials, we help to turn off the tap of marine pollution from the source itself. Another valuable part of beach clean-ups is the data collected on the items that are polluting the oceans. From data, we can infer if the trash on the beach could be due to local littering or illegal dumping from passing fleets. We could then act accordingly to deal with the issue.

Inland water such as rivers are potentially a major transport pathway marine microplastic to the sea. In comparison, plastic contamination in rivers has been comparatively understudied than their marine counterparts. However, studies have shown that microplastics have also been found in freshwater fishes.

Relevant Links:

  1. To read up more on the South Java Deep Sea Expedition (SJADES): https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/
  2. To read up more on the discovery of the Singapore Sperm Whale in 2015: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/dead-whale-jubi-lee-found-in-singapore-tells-tale-of-scientific-discovery
  3. To read the published paper on the Singapore Sperm Whale: https://peerj.com/articles/6705/?td=bl
  4. To read up more on the published study commissioned by WWF on human plastic consumption: https://www.wwf.sg/?uNewsID=348375
  5. To watch the full short movie (10 mins) on plastic consumption featuring our speaker Reza: https://youtu.be/HJQ77dgNFMc
  6. To read up more on the increase in demand of plastic takeaway containers during COVID-19:

Subscribe to our newsletter: