Plastic tsunamis threaten coast in Latin America


Volunteers from the Peruvian Institute for the Protection of the Environment Vida clean up the waste washed up by the sea on the coast near Lima. Half of the 6,000 tonnes of marine debris collected by the organisation since 1998, with the support of 200,000 volunteers, is disposable plastic. PHOTO/Vida

Although Latin America produces just five percent of the world’s plastic, it imports billions of tons annually for the use of all kinds of products, some of which end up in the sea as garbage.

It thus contributes to this kind of artificial tsunami that threatens the biodiversity of the oceans, where 13 million tons of waste, mostly disposable plastics, are dumped each year at a global level, according to UN Environment – enough to wrap around the Earth four times.

The impact is such that it also affects human health, as this resistant waste enters the food chain, and has led the United Nations to declare “Beat Plastic Pollution” as the theme for this year’s World Environment Day, on Jun. 5.

“Plastic discarded improperly on beaches, rivers and the sewers ends up in the sea and causes the death of thousands of marine animals every year. Drinking straws, cigarette butts, caps, plastic bags, improperly discarded, represent the highest percentage of environmentally hazardous materials for marine wildlife.” — Marcelo Szpilman

Favoured by a 3,000-km coastline on the Pacific Ocean, with one of the world’s most nutrient-rich waters, Peru was one of the first Latin American countries to join the Clean Seas campaign, launched a year ago by UN Environment.

The global campaign aims to eliminate by 2022 the main sources of marine debris, which can remain in ecosystems for 500 years. There are five identified ‘islands’ of plastic rubbish in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, one of them between Chile and Peru.

“We have witnessed firsthand the serious impacts of different types of waste, including plastic in our seas,” said Ursula Carrascal, project coordinator for the Institute for the Protection of the Environment Vida in Peru.

For 20 years, the organisation has been leading a campaign to clean up beaches and coastlines in this Andean country, involving all sectors of society.

According to Carrascal, the problem is exacerbated when the country suffers additional damage caused by natural disasters, such as the “La Niña” phenomenon that in 2017 caused flooding and the shifting of tons of waste accumulated on river banks.

“Marquez Beach in Callao was literally covered in garbage for three km. Many beaches are now gone, fishing boats and artisanal fishermen are affected by the damage to their nets or engines caused by plastic,” she told IPS from Lima.

The country, according to the Environment Ministry, generates 6.8 million tons of solid waste. Lima and the neighbouring port city of Callao alone generate an estimated three million tons per year. Of that total, 53 percent is organic waste, and in second place comes plastic, accounting for 11 percent, a percentage in line with the world average.

In fact, half of the 6,000 tons of marine debris collected by Vida since 1998, with the support of 200,000 volunteers, is plastic.

“There is a strong concern about the risk in the field of food safety due to the plastic accidentally ingested by fish,” Carrascal said.

The governmental Marine Institute of Peru has been studying the impact of microplastic (less than five mm long) on Peruvian beaches and in the digestive tract of fish for years. A 2017 report found 473 plastic fragments per square metre on a beach in Callao.

Inter Press Service for more

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