Myanmar’s lifeblood in peril

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30 July 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - The Ayeyarwady River, dubbed the lifeblood of Myanmar and home to a threatened species of dolphin, is being suffocated by tonnes of plastic being dumped into it every day. It has been ranked the ninth most polluted river in the world, behind the Philippines' Pasig and South America's Amazon.

A study by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Thant Myanmar, a non-profit organisation combating plastic pollution in Myanmar, showed that 119 tonnes of plastic waste enter the river daily, based on water samples taken by experts along the Ayeyarwady from Mandalay to Pyay in Bago Region.

The Delta Region dumps the most plastic waste in the river each day, around 32 tonnes, and Yangon dumps about 29 tonnes of plastic a day in the river.

The waste comprises 62 percent hard plastic, such as bottle caps, 22pc soft plastic, such as betel nut bags, 9pc Styrofoam, such as food boxes, and 7pc multi-layer flexible, such as instant coffee packages.

The study's findings were discussed by experts and policymakers recently at a workshop in Nay Pyi Taw entitled "Plastic pollution in Myanmar: Focus on the Ayeyarwady River."

Damaging people's health

U Ye Myint Swe, deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, who hosted the workshop, said that plastic pollution damages the beauty of Myanmar and affects people's health.

"The crisis is pressing but solutions exist," said Friedor Jeske of Thant Myanmar, one of the key researchers behind the study. "It is up to all of us – policymakers, producers and civil society – to find the right solutions for Myanmar, put them into action and make sure we stop the plastic pollution before it gets worse."

Larger plastic items are mistakenly ingested as food by birds or fish or they get entangled in the material, rendering them immobile so that they starve to death. When the concentration of plastic further escalates, this could have serious consequences, according to Thant Myanmar.

An example of this would be a video that has been making rounds among Myanmar social media users of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril.

The survey also showed that the daily discharge of plastic in the Ayeyarwady River is 17 times higher during the monsoon. The plastic concentration per cubic metre of water in the rainy season is 0.05g/m3, compared to 0.003g/m3 in the dry season.

"We know the plastic pollution crisis is a global crisis but this is the first time we have quantified Myanmar's contribution. We must work with policymakers to find solutions that tackle plastic pollution at its source so we can stop this pollution from damaging our coastal ecosystems," U Zau Lunn of FFI said.

River beds are becoming impermeable and shallower since river bed plastic reduces the chance of the wash out of the sediment. This leads to more flooding and widening of the river, destroying its banks.

Plastic in food, our bodies

A study conducted by Norway's Fridtjof Nansen research vessel found that Myanmar's coastline is heavily polluted by microplastics – small pieces that break off of larger items over time.

The researchers found that the ocean surrounding Myanmar, primarily in the Bay of Bengal, is heavily polluted with up to 28,000 microplastic particles per square kilometre, which is 8000 more than is found off India's coast.

Microplastics can be absorbed by algae, leading to reduced growth and disrupting the very basis of the food chain, as it is consumed by different sea life.

Also, microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses can use microplastics in the water as a means to migrate to new areas.

The danger of microplastics does not stop there. Humans are also consuming microplastics in food and beverages.

An average person can consume as much as 1769 plastic particles every week just from drinking water, including tap and bottled water, according to a World Wide Fund for Nature report. A person drinking beer could potentially ingest 10 particles, and eating salt could lead to ingesting 11 particles.

However, the effects of microplastics on human health or algae and other flora and fauna at the bottom of the food chain are not fully understood.

The most widespread measure to take in combating waste pollution is improved waste collection and storage/destruction through land filling or incineration, according to Thant Myanmar.

The most effective method is waste reduction at the source, through bans and taxation of the use of plastic.

Recycling has limited positive effects, as these items eventually re-enter the waste cycle as lowergrade waste. Reduction is becoming more and more popular around the world as governments ban the use of certain items.

Five tips to reduce plastic pollution

• Refuse unnecessary plastic, such as bags, cups, bottles, straws, cutlery, foam boxes, etc. by bringing your own container.

• Eat and drink in. Avoid take-away whenever possible. Order soft drinks in glass bottles.

• Start organic composting at home to reduce waste and support better waste collection by the authorities.

• Separate recyclable material and sell it or place it in bulk next to the waste container.

• Never dispose of waste in the river. In rural areas where there is no waste collection waste should either be buried or burned.


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