Opinion: How marine debris impedes coastal tourism and economic development

Plastic bottles and marine debris on the beach. Photo by: iStock / Getty Images Plus

The tableau of turquoise waters and white sandy beaches has been driving tourist dollars to low- and middle-income countries for decades. However, a rising tide of marine debris threatens this critical driver of economic growth like never before.

 “You can call a plumber and fix the problem, or you can keep cleaning up after it forever. And when it comes to marine plastic, we need to fix the faucet by dealing with the waste before it reaches the sea.”

Around the world, marine debris costs an estimated $13 billion a year, mainly through its adverse effect on fisheries, tourism, and biodiversity, according to Trucost, the research arm of Standard & Poor’s, a financial services company.

In Indonesia alone, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that plastic pollution could adversely affect tourism, fisheries, and shipping sectors by as much as $1.3 billion.

If our work in international development has taught us anything, it’s that no matter where you live, marine debris is like a leaky faucet. You can call a plumber and fix the problem, or you can keep cleaning up after it forever. And when it comes to marine plastic, we need to fix the faucet by dealing with the waste before it reaches the sea.

To do so will require a solid waste management plan that allows tourism and economic development to flourish, without turning on new faucets of waste.

Despite international commitments to reduce waste at the Our Oceans Conference last November, there is still much work to be done. Solvents, fertilizers, toxic sludge, and other wastes entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 marine “dead zones,” measuring over 245,000 square kilometers, a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom. That is the equivalent of one garbage truck full of debris being dumped into the ocean every minute. Plastic particles have been found in hundreds of marine species, including fish and shellfish sold for human consumption.

Designing a better landfill for the Northern Mariana Islands

The Island of Tinian in the South Pacific has only 3,500 residents but generates 2,623 tons per year of mixed debris — much of which was finding its way into the ocean. Historically, solid waste in Tinian was placed in an unpermitted dump site, which operated as an open burn dump.

Working with the Northern Mariana Islands, Tetra Tech designed a new landfill for the island that complies with international standards. Given the high volume of rainfall that Tinian receives — approximately 81 inches per year — leachate — water that has percolated through solid waste — and surface water management were key design considerations. A leachate treatment system consisting of constructed wetlands was designed to receive an estimated 32,470 gallons per day and help stop the flow of debris into the Pacific when the landfill is constructed.

Our work to improve the management of fisheries and marine resources allows us to see the scope of the problem firsthand. When we walk along the beaches in Bali or take the ferries from fishing ports, the beaches and bays are littered with garbage and debris. These are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

The importance of taking a holistic approach

Tetra Tech operates throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean to support the development and management of marine biodiversity and sustainable fisheries through projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Our work takes us to places where it is critical to prevent pollution and marine debris from impacting the local communities.

Within our solid waste management group, we studied the problem of marine waste and determined that quick, focused action is essential to mitigate adverse economic impacts.

Moreover, marine waste is most prevalent in developing countries where money hasn’t traditionally been devoted to solid waste management. Tetra Tech is committed to attacking this problem in developing countries, with support from stakeholders worldwide.

Only inclusive solutions can stop the flow

Our work across Southeast Asia to strengthen regional cooperation to combat illegal fishing and promote sustainable fisheries has taught us that behaviors can only change when all actors are at the table. Although women are an essential component of Southeast Asia’s fisheries workforce, they are often excluded from the decision-making process.

Working with USAID on The Oceans and Fisheries Partnership we developed guidelines on how to incorporate gender issues in all aspects of the seafood supply chain. Many of these same lessons apply to our work to reduce marine waste as many waste pickers and sorters are women.

This is why at a recent discussion on solutions for reducing plastic waste held by The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the U.S. State Department, we recommended they convene a series of “solid waste workshops” throughout Southeast Asia to bring together stakeholders at every level.

These workshops would ensure that solid waste management is addressed at the national, provincial, and municipal levels through a mix of public and private sector funding sources. These workshops would introduce the planning process and act as a forum to discuss current problems and potential solutions and identify pilot areas.

One potential location for these workshops is Bali, where tourism has grown from 3.5 million visitors in 2005, to an expected 18.2 million by 2020. Bali generates 3,800 tons of solid waste every day, and only 60% of it ends up in landfills. To succeed in Bali, we will need to include representatives from all stakeholders.

The need for effective management

While tourism is an important engine of economic growth, in places such as Bali, the use of plastics and other waste materials is outpacing local capacities for waste management. Therefore, effective management of solid waste is essential in our efforts to protect public health and environmental stewardship. An integrated solid waste system should include collection, materials recovery, processing, and disposal. The plan should include methods for stimulating the economy by evaluating the recycled materials for sale, reuse, and possibly even conversion to energy.

In Indonesia, we worked with communities in several marine protected areas on the USAID Sustainable Ecosystems Advanced Project developing marine tourism guides that included best practices for reducing waste and keeping beaches clean. Globally, we are working with the UNEP to develop a comprehensive solid waste management guide that documents international waste management concepts, best practices, and technologies. The guide is intended to assist local government leaders, workers, and organizations in lower- and middle-income countries with waste management principles.

Once we see what can be achieved in Southeast Asia, we will use this approach as a guide to fix the faucet of plastic waste once and for all. By crafting inclusive, holistic solutions, we can stop the flow of marine debris, benefitting other coastal countries throughout the developing world.

About the authors

  • Green 150 1

    Gina Green

    Dr. Gina C. Green is a senior associate of environment and natural resources at Tetra Tech. A specialist in biodiversity, climate change, forestry, and agriculture, she has over 35 years of experience designing, implementing, and evaluating initiatives to protect and manage natural resources in Asia, South Pacific, Latin America, North America, and the Caribbean.
  • Stirrat bryan

    Bryan Stirrat

    Bryan Stirrat is head of Tetra Tech’s Marine Debris Prevention practice, and a senior manager of the firm’s Solid Waste Initiative. He has more than 40 years of experience in solid waste facility and system planning, design, and operation. A respected authority on innovative solid waste system operational strategies, he has been principal engineer on projects at more than 250 solid waste facilities in North America, the Pacific, and Central America.

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