Big Blue Conservation - 20 October 2018

Koh Tao Waves goodbye to plastic.

Since its existence plastic has had mixed reactions, whether it be a lifesaving discovery or a burden on our environment.

The first ever plastic based synthetic Bakelite was created by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907, made from phenol and formaldehyde.  However the discovery of materials such as plastics, were being used from as early as 1839 by Charles Goodyear who used rubber from the rubber tree, and also an apothecary from Berlin by the name of Edward Simon discovered polystyrene.

From using rubber the first ever plastics were made using very natural materials like Alexander Parkes who demonstrated during an exhibition in 1862 that Parkesine an organic material from cellulose could be heated and then hold its shape. Add then alcoholised camphor, in 1868 John Wesly Hyatt was able to make billiard balls without using ivory.

As the science progressed so did the plastics, its durability and strength was something that could be used for many applications. Despite starting its life constructed from natural sources, the advances in science meant the creation of unnatural manmade substances like the famous PVC polyvinyl chloride CH2=CHCLTypes of plastic symbols Credits iStock Thinkstockcom ID 25726818

By the 1960’s the popularity of plastics had increased, and by 1985 you could find plastic bags in over 75% of supermarkets instead of paper. Due to the lower manufactory costs, of making a plastic bag as opposed to a paper one.plastic bottles 500x281

So where do we stand now, on the brink of a plastic legacy. Most plastics would take from 450 to over a thousand years to decompose, due to their strong chemical structure.  And so with this knowledge many would try to eliminate the plastic waste by burning, and with such a low melting point the chemicals used in their creation would then be released in to the atmosphere. Poisoning entire communities, and having drastic effects on their health.

Burning PVC Plastic releases Dioxins, that are considered a carcinogenic, and hormone disruptor. A primary cause of Cancerous diseases, which give people the symptoms of cyanide poisoning.  Headaches, weakness, nausea, and shortness of breath.

So going back to the title of this piece I bring us back to the small island of Koh Tao in the southern gulf of Thailand. Approximately only 5km in length with a population of little over 1,500, it has a vibrant community of locals and tourists.

On a small island plastic pollution can be a big problem, efforts to recycle have fallen short and the local garbage site can be seen increasing daily due to throw away plastic. As an Asian culture that has a very much laid back easy lifestyle. The introduction of plastic came with a flourish and replaced a lot of very natural based materials. For example instead of wrapping in plastic, banana leaf was an easily accessible material that could be used to wrap almost everything.  Instead of a plastic cup, cups were made from bamboo shoots, something found abundantly across Thailand.straws 500x281

Before long the impact of single use plastic was seen across the island, the local bars would give a customer 5 plastic straw with every cocktail bucket. These plastic straws then fall from over flowed bins, on to the local beaches, then consumed by the ocean to spend their life at sea. Or end up consumed by marine life, which will then have a severe effect on their health.

So with a community in crisis, despite their frequent clean up attempts. Action needed to be taken, and so as a joint effort by local and Foreign residents. Solutions came forward, if we could not eliminate the objects made of plastic. Then we would find alternatives, so that those objects were no longer made from plastic.

Straws made from metal, paper or bamboo can now be seen at many of the bars and restaurant, many bars and residents now buy water that is refilled in glass or metal bottles, and finally the many shops that no longer give customers a plastic bag free, encouraging them to bring a long a reusable shopping bag.Straw alternarives 500x281

Although this is still far from a plastic free utopia, it can be seen as a start to change for the better. With some of the cleanest beaches in Asia, this small islands community has certainly made a great attempt at getting clean.  

 So as conclusion whether burned or left to decompose plastic is poisoning our planet, and so like our predecessors were named for their greatest discovery, like the stone or bronze age. This era of man could come to be known as the plastic age, and could well be the only thing left as our legacy.   It will be down to us to change, and from the success of this small island. It can be seen that it can work.

Thank you for reading

Rachel Linartssairee beach 1

Conservationist living on Koh Tao