PUSAT KAJIAN SAMUDERA & PANTAI -- Universiti Sains Malaysia

An island of plastic waste -

13 NOVEMBER 2021, GEORGE TOWN: A man-made island that greets visitors travelling along the Penang bridge has become an eye-sore, littered with plastic that poses a danger to the marine environment in the state and in the Strait of Malacca as a whole.

The 3ha Pulau Gazumbo, formed from sand build-ups while the bridge was being built from 1983 to 1986, has so much rubbish that it now looks like a landfill.


Its dense copse of trees hide a lurid collection of plastic waste washed up on the island, which is just 500m from the bridge on the right if you are coming from Butterworth.

“You only see what’s on top. There is much more plastic buried under the sand over the decades. I could do a soil core test to show how deep the plastic waste goes,” said Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) marine biologist Prof Datuk Dr Aileen Tan.

A team of scientists went to Pulau Gazumbo recently on a regular data-gathering mission, something USM has done since the island came into existence.

The Star photographer Lim Beng Tatt, who was invited to join the scientists during their mission, witnessed the pollution on the island.

“I saw a 93-year-old fisherman digging for clams on Pulau Gazumbo. He had brought three of his grandchildren along.

“While he dug, the kids played with the plastic rubbish along a stream that flowed from the middle of the island out to sea.

“There was so much rubbish, it was like a landfill,” Lim lamented.

Lim said the middle of Pulau Gazumbo was lower than its beach, so a bog filled with mostly plastic bottles – washed up by powerful spring tide waves – has formed in the middle of the island.

Prof Tan said the marine litter composition on Pulau Gazumbo was a textbook example of what scientists have discovered.

“Marine litter composition in Malaysia comprises 42% beverage bottles and 33% plastic bags, with the remainder being all other manner of plastic waste.

“When you look at all the bottles and plastic bags on this island, it matches the statistics,” she said, bemoaning the fact that because Pulau Gazumbo is less than 1km off the coast of George Town, much of the plastic waste likely came from the city’s inhabitants via Sungai Pinang.

Plastic waste at sea endangers humans through seafood, she said.

As plastic compounds disintegrate under the sun, they break down into micro and even nano sizes. Marine life then unwittingly ingests it and when humans consume seafood, the plastic gets into their system too.

“Plastic takes centuries to decompose, no matter how small they break down in size under the elements.

“Researchers have discovered that there is a median of 20 microplastic and nanoplastic particles in 10g of human stool. Even worse, some are small enough to pass through the human digestive tract and enter our bloodstream.

“Most of the research point to seafood as the source. It can’t be helped because even zooplankton can ingest plastic, so when fish eat plankton, they get it too,” Prof Tan explained.

As the discovery of microplastic ingestion is relatively new, she said medical research has yet to pin down what ailments it will cause, but she advised governments and communities to at least do something in the absence of clear proof of danger.

“We don’t deny the importance of plastic in the world, but what must be managed is the disposal, reuse and recycling of the material. We must use plastic responsibly.”

Prof Tan, who is the director of USM’s Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (Cemacs), said the Environment and Water Ministry has outlined the National Marine Litter Policy and Action Plan 2021-2030, and steps will soon be taken to arrest the problem.

“For the people themselves, the best help they can give to the environment is to completely avoid single-use plastics.

“Keep steel eating utensils in your car, office and even your handbag. Stop using plastic eating utensils. Own a good-looking steel water bottle. Have lots of reusable bags.

“We know the issues. We know the solutions. Now we just have to put the solutions into action,” she said.


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