Over 500 students representing universities across the globe set sail on the MV World Odyssey this January for the Spring 2016 Semester at Sea program. Their floating campus will take them around the world to 15 cities in 11 different countries in just over 100 days. Among these world travelers is Paula Pecorella of Stony Brook University, who will serve as a correspondent for The Statesman this semester.
The world is currently on track to have more plastic than fish by weight in its oceans by 2050, according to a study published by the World Economic Forum. The same report stated that humans are dumping the equivalent of one garbage truck’s worth into the ocean per minute, adding to the estimated 165 million tons already in the ocean.
In other words, the oceans are in big trouble. But humans are not powerless to stop it and many organizations, including the World Economic Forum, have started initiatives to tackle what parts of this problem they can.
Developed and led by young people ambitious to positively impact society, Global Shapers was established in 2010 and has since grown into a network of 450 hubs worldwide. The World Economic Forum backed Global Shapers in part because, with more than 50 percent of the world’s population under the age of 27, the voice of youth is increasingly more relevant to their commitment to improving the state of the world, according the World Economic Forum’s website.
“The whole goal of Global Shapers community is improving the state of the world by impacting locally,” Karuna Rana, curator for the Mauritius hub, said. Rana explained that the goals for each of the hubs vary based on the local area’s needs. “In Mauritius, we are surrounded by our beautiful oceans, so a lot of our focus is on oceans.”
Just last month, a group of students traveling with Semester at Sea, a multiple country study-abroad program emphasizing hands-on field experiences and meaningful engagement in the global community, teamed up with Global Shapers to clean up a local beach.
The private beach on Mauritius, an island that lies just off the coast of Africa, sat covered in plastic, styrofoam, paper and other waste before these young activists collectively gathered 55 pounds of trash and 77 pounds of recyclable material during their two-hour beach clean-up.
“A lot of the air we breathe comes from the ocean, and if the oceans are polluted, it destroys environments not only for animals but also for us as well,” said 21-year-old Semester at Sea student and environmental activist Erin Kollar after participating in the clean up. “So when you have a bunch of trash left in the ocean, the water around that trash becomes toxified from all the degradation. Animals eat it because it looks colorful and exciting, but it’s toxic and bad, and then people eat the fish, and it’s just this huge cycle of issues that stem from the overproduction of disposable trash.”
CNN Money reported earlier this year that nearly a third of all plastic packaging escapes collecting systems, and of that, more than 8 million tons of plastics enter our oceans each year. For the plastic that does make it to the landfills, The Guardian reported that only about 5 percent of it is effectively recycled.
In its report, the World Economic Forum urges countries to develop the type of infrastructure necessary to effectively recycle the overwhelming amount of plastic waste the world is facing. In Mauritius, the Global Shapers hub has connected with Belle Verte, an environmental nonprofit organization that provides the facilities for beach clean-ups and home recycling incentives for locals.
“Here in Mauritius we don’t have any sorting at home,” Martine Lassemillante, the managing director of Belle Verte, said. “Everything is put in the same bin and goes to the same landfill, so we offer a home pick up recyclable plan.”
She explained that once trash is collected, Belle Verte sorts recyclables from non-recyclables and sends each to a location with the necessary infrastructure for recycling it. Iron is melted and bottles are conditioned right there in Mauritius, while polyester fibers get shipped to South Africa, aluminum is compacted and shipped to either China or India, and glass is crushed and resold in the forms of concrete, art or decoration.
When pressed about what happens to the trash when it arrives in the other countries, Lassemillante shrugged in defeat and said, “We are looking forward to working with someone here to research and develop the capacity of melting the aluminum here.”
And while Belle Verte has put its foot in the right direction by providing recycling facilities for the people on this small island nation, it is reflective of a much larger problem that the Earth is facing. Wealthier nations shift garbage around to countries that are willing to take it for a price, such as China and India, where it will remain in landfills or simply end up back in the oceans.
Researchers at Yale University estimated that the average American produces approximately 1,871 pounds of garbage each year, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Packaged foods, plastic bags, and disposable water bottles are just a few of the most common plastics piling up in landfills and in the oceans.
But could the answer to this widespread trash problem sweeping the planet really be as easy as just consuming less stuff?
As the Shapers would put it, start locally and you will affect globally.
FEATURE IMAGE COURTESY OF LAUREN HARTIG