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An Oasis of Plastic?

Johnathan Lin
2/10/17

Independent Research G/T


Dr. Melissa Kiehl
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Abstract

Plastic pollution in oceans has become a major issue in the last couple of hundreds of

years that needs to be addressed due to its negative worldwide impact. In these years, it has

caused many detrimental environmental effects, including resource contamination, sickness,

hormonal imbalances, marine animal deaths due to strangulation or ingestion, ecosystem

destruction, and the promotion of invasive species. Currently, five Southeastern countries (China,

Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines) produce 50-60% of the worlds plastic

pollution in oceans. This astonishing number is caused by the rapid industrialization of these

countries, skyrocketing population, high plastic usage, proximity to the coast, under equipped

waste management systems, wasteful consumer culture, and lack of reusability of plastics. In this

research, interviews, online research, and surveys were conducted to learn more about the topic.

This research brought light to many solutions for the issue, including improving waste

management facilities, reducing plastic use, and incentivizing populations to take action by

organizing more community events. Improving waste management facilities would be beneficial

because more manpower, technology, and enclosing landfills translates to efficient collection

service more suited for the increasing plastic waste and less stray plastic debris. Reducing plastic

use would be a key solution to this problem; if consumers were to switch to alternatives instead

of plastic, there would less plastic usage, waste, and production. Not to mention, there would

also be indirect benefits in air quality, energy usage, and landfill space. Lastly, by encouraging

action, there will be more environmental conscience which would encourage solutions to be

done. To conclude the research, an informational piece, such as a brochure, video, or pamphlet

will be made to raise awareness for the issue and incentivize environmental action.
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Introduction

Many seafood cuisines all around the world are secretly seasoned with a special

ingredient: plastic. When it comes to pollution, people often neglect where most of the pollution

goes: the ocean. Pollution has changed in shape, size, material, and quantity since the 1800s (A

Brief History of Pollution.). During many developmental periods (Ex: Industrial Revolution),

the drastic increase in population along with higher use of modern materials has led to increased

waste production, causing devastating environmental consequences. During the Industrial

Revolution of America, the environment was one of the least concerns among many: rivers

became polluted, disease was rampant, air became covered with smog, city streets were flooded

with filth, and drifting, synthetic waste was everywhere. In recent years, plastic has been one of

the most common waste materials around the world. Eight million tons of plastic pollution is

being annually dumped into oceans, where the waste will stick around for thousands of years to

come (Ocean Pollution). Many believe that developed countries are the ones to blame, but the

real culprits to the plastic pollution are developing countries, specifically the Southeast Asian

countries with large populations (Winn, 5 countries dump). Five developing Asian countries,

China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, contribute to 50-60% of the plastic

pollution in the entire world. This drastic number stems from many issues including,

industrialization, consumer culture, underwhelming waste management, and high plastic usage.

For these reasons, improved recycling programs, less plastic usage, and more emphasis on ocean

pollution will drastically reduce ocean pollution in these countries and its environmental impact.

This paper will educate the reader about mainly plastic pollution and its detrimental

environmental effects, explain why these five developing Asian countries contribute to such a
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drastic amount of plastic pollution in oceans, and propose possible solutions that can reduce

plastic pollution, consumption and its environmental effects.

Review of Literature
Plastic pollution as well as many other types of ocean pollution has detrimental effects to

the health of ecosystems; they disrupt the biological balances that keep the ecosystems in healthy

shape. The first, direct impact of this plastic and ocean pollution is resource contamination.

Plastics as well as other pollutants can contaminate water supplies and food chains in marine

ecosystems (Lonne, How Does Ocean). It can also bio accumulate in both living organisms

and the environment due to their high persistence; plastics take thousands of years to decompose

(Ocean Pollution). This means that these pollutants continually ravage marine animals for long

periods of time (Rinkesh, What is Ocean). Although biological communities are resilient to

an extent, they still have been vastly affected in their everyday lives. Plastic pollution as well as

many other types of ocean pollution can cause illness, hormonal, or digestion problems. Rashes,

stomach aches, and diarrhea are just some of the possible symptoms of exposure from just plastic

(Lonne, How does Ocean). To add to that, plastic debris can injure or cause death for many

marine species due to ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, or entanglement

(The Problem of Marine). With debris, such as plastics, Styrofoam, aluminum, and foam,

along with contaminants, such as oil, phosphates, lead, mercury, it is no wonder that ecosystem

destruction is another consequence of ocean pollution.

Excess nutrients, mainly fertilizers, and plastic waste that flow into bodies of water

and/or the ocean end up creating dead zones due to algae blooms. Algae blooms are rapid

overgrowths of algae; they are detrimental to marine ecosystems because they both become

dense and block out sunlight for underwater plant species. Plastic waste also blocks out sunlight
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for underwater species and can serve as a platform for algae to grow (Rinkesh, What is

Ocean). Along with the barrier that plastic and algae create, they both can use extremely high

amounts of available oxygen in the water. Algae require oxygen for respiration, whereas plastic

waste requires oxygen in order to decompose (Rinkesh, What is Ocean). In large quantities,

both plastic and algae can create these catastrophic results. When other organisms are deprived

of sunlight and/or oxygen, they must migrate to different places in order to survive, which can

create dead zones (Ocean Pollution). These dead zones remain for thousands if not millions

of years, because the restoration processes that these areas undergo are very slow and fragile;

many ecosystems do not have adequate organisms or biological processes to decompose these

foreign, synthetic materials and get rid of algae invasions. If humans do not allow these natural

processes to restore these zones, then these areas could be abandoned forever.

Ecosystems can also be destroyed in other various ways, including by invasive species.

Invasive species are creatures that cannot be controlled by the ecosystem of a habitat because

they are foreign; species often become invasive after they are transported to foreign ecosystems

as a result of human activity. What makes this so problematic is that there are usually no

biological controls, such as predators or climate conditions, to prevent the species from surviving

and reproducing at high success. This means that the populations of invasive species can get out

of hand and result in resource depletion and eventually ecosystem destruction. As waste debris

floats around, they can become habitats for organisms that cling onto surfaces to survive, such as

barnacles and mussels. Plastic debris often plays a key role in providing a living surface for these

species. These situations can lead to disaster when ocean currents transport the floating/mobile

ocean debris to new areas. If this occurs, organisms have the potential to become invasive and

destructive in their new, foreign habitats (The Problem of Marine). Once an invasive species
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forms, it becomes terribly difficult to control unless the ecosystem falls along with their

populations.

At first glance, these five Southeastern countries magically seem to produce a vast

amount of plastic pollution considering how small they appear. How could such a small region of

the world produce more than half of the plastic pollution in the oceans today? Well, there are

several reasons for why these countries can make so much pollution. The primary cause for their

high contributions is that each country is going through industrialization periods. This means that

all five of these countries are experiencing accelerated economic growth as more and more

people emerge from poverty, improve their living standards, and start to consume more modern

materials in their improved lives (Indonesias Plastic). Combined with the rapid population

growth and the high population density for each country, it becomes clear why these countries

can consume and waste so much.

Consumer-culture in the modern world is not helping either. In many stores of either

developing or developed countries, plastic bags are among the most popular choice for

consumers. Once they are used, they are thrown away into garbage bins or find their ways onto

sidewalks and streets (Vi, Plastic bag). Their convenience and cheap, or at many times free,

cost makes them very appealing to shoppers. Also, many consumer products contain plastic

packaging to seal, protect, or showcase products (Vi, Plastic bag). Companies from all over

the world like to put their products in plastic packaging is for one main reason: its cheap.

Companies will always opt for the cheapest production costs, and if that means using plastic,

then they will use plastic. Plastic is so common and accessible around the world that it would be

unusual if it wasnt used in consumer products and stores. However, the accessibility of plastic is

exactly the reason why these countries manage to pollute so much.


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Unfortunately, waste management systems in these Southeastern countries have not

experienced accelerated growth like the economy and the population. Most of these countries do

not have technological waste facilities, but rather communal dumps which are basically large

piles of trash (Winn, 5 countries dump). Exposed to the wind and elements, stray items are

easily swept away into rivers and lands where they will eventually end up in the nearby ocean

(Winn, 5 countries dump). To make matters worse, many garbage men who collect

community trash often cut corners by dumping trash at the side of a river in order to reduce

operation costs (Winn, 5 countries dump). They also tend to skip rural areas, which means

that a huge portion of the waste being produced isnt even being collected at all (Winn, 5

countries dump). On a brighter note, there are garbage pickers who collect trash for money.

These people are currently the only ones who actually recycle trash in these countries by

foraging for recyclables in both rivers and landfills and selling their collected items to recycling

companies. However, the flaw with these pickers is that they tend to solely collect high value

items, such as plastic bottles, and neglect non-valuable ones such as plastic bags (Winn, 5

countries dump). Plastic bottles are valued much more than plastic bags because recycling

companies in these countries are willing to pay much more for bottles. An average trash

collector, who works ten hours a day, can make $3.70 a day if he/she collects plastic bottles

rather than collecting plastic bags which would only fetch a measly 50 (Winn, 5 countries

dump). This means that a high amount of the plastic waste still becomes destined to reach the

ocean, causing havoc on the oceans and ecosystems that depend on it.

This leads to the next issue: there are no feasible solutions to utilize plastic pollution.

Plastics come in a variety of forms, differing in rigidity, reusability, and chemistry. Thermoset

plastics, which are commonly used in consumer products, are non-reusable and cannot be re-
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molded again. There are other plastics that can be reused, but many can only be reused around

two to three times before the materials become completely useless (How plastic is made).

Another issue with plastic is that although it can be remolded, it cannot be reused for its original

purpose; the recycled plastic often has to be used for other limited applications such as water

pipes or fences. New plastic must be produced in order to make popular plastic items such as

plastic bags, bottles, and containers (How plastic is made). Many of the newly proposed

methods, solutions, and uses for plastic require modification and tinkering before they actually

become mainstream; these solutions and methods are often productively or economically

unfeasible (Indonesias plastic). The combination of massive plastic consumption, outdated

waste management, and little reusability of plastic make this problem seem to be a daunting task.

Despite the odds, there are many possible solutions to the situation before it escalates.

First and foremost, consumers should be responsible and use less plastic by any means possible.

Reusable alternatives such as glass and tin cans could be used in place for beverages in plastic

bottles. Food containers could use wood, bamboo, glass, or stainless steel to substitute for

plastic. Biodegradable materials also exist. For example, there are soda rings made of barley and

wheat, bamboo bags or tote bags of various materials that could replace plastic bags, and wooden

or bamboo utensils to replace plastic ones; the sky is the limit for solutions to the problem. By

introducing and popularizing these alternatives, there will be less plastic use and production

overall, which leads to less potential stray plastic ending up in bodies of water.

Garbage facilities also need to upgrade their systems and improve their workforces in

order to prevent this. Many of these waste facilities lack the manpower that is needed to manage

all this waste, which can easily be changed if the companies hire more people. More people

means more areas can provide waste collection services, and the efficiency of operation could be
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improved with a larger workforce. Another suggested fix that these facilities should consider is

enclosing their trash piles. Not only will this stop stray plastic from heading to rivers and oceans,

but this will also stop wildlife, such as birds and foxes, from ingesting the harmful waste in these

areas. To clear or clean up landfills, waste facilities should utilize the trash rather than simply

piling and burning trash in these facilities. Although there are some facilities that burn trash in

order to produce energy, it comes at the cost of lowering air quality. Burning plastic waste is a

horrible solution due to the plethora of extremely harmful pollutants and chemicals that are

released into the atmosphere during burning processes (Eisenstark, Chinas). This also leads

to other environmental concerns, such as air quality, acid rain, and ocean acidification which are

all terrible prices to pay for burning trash. Unpopular uses for trash should be pushed for as well,

such as harvesting methane gas produced by decomposition in landfills (Indonesias plastic).

Although this does not clear landfill space, it conserves fossil fuels and makes use of an already-

abundant source that humans have. Next generations will not have a safe environment to live in

if environmental practices such as these continue to occur. After all, consumers are the one who

make choices to use these materials and create the pollution that plagues the oceans.

One of the best, yet overlooked methods to solving this problem is to educate students or

even possibly adults about ocean pollution. Many people simply lack the education or awareness

to realize how plastic pollution as well as other types of pollution affects their environment, or

they often choose convenience over environmental impact just because they see no immediate

effect (Indonesias plastic). By teaching and emphasizing the students or adults about this

content, next generations will become more aware, responsible, and environmentally-conscious

throughout their lives. With more awareness, many more new ideas and solutions will emerge

from individuals. Also, these new ideas and solutions will have much a much higher chance to
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become mainstream because the population would be very supportive to increase the popularity

of these propositions. It is vital that these students receive this education and content. Soon, they

will all be fully responsible of taking care of the environment and ensuring that other future

generations will have one to protect.

Although the environment has already been damaged, there is still time to change things

around for the better. Less plastic usage, improved waste collection facilities, and more emphasis

about the severity of ocean pollution are only three of the countless number of solutions that we

can put in action. Not only will reducing plastic use lower plastic waste, but it will also help to

save space in landfills, save energy from producing less plastic, and improve the quality of air

that could have been tainted by the fumes of burning or decomposing plastic. Improved waste

collection facilities would be able to keep the pollution problem under control with more

manpower, technology, and efficiency. It will cost more money to improve the technology in

these facilities and obtain more manpower, but the environmental benefits, such as clean water

and oxygen, will be definitely worth it. By educating the importance of ocean conservation to

children and adults, more people will be called to action and possibly produce invaluable

inventions in the future that could save the environment in desperate times. Many more new

solutions will be made in order to combat this issue day by day, but they will only combat these

issues rather than stop the source of all of this pollution. Every individual is to blame for the

environmental consequences that are being currently observed. Ecosystems are falling apart,

seafood and water is becoming more contaminated, people and organisms are getting sick,

animals are becoming extinct day by day; the list goes on. How much is enough for people to

realize that what we are doing now will soon become irreversible? Will people only realize what

they should have done when everything is already gone? If the current population does not
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change how they use resources, change their practices, or care more for the environment, then

there is little hope for improvement this dire problem and the survival of humanity. Humans have

taken so much from the environment and have abused it so much in the last couple of hundred

years. Its time to give back, repair, conserve, and respect the environment for what it has done

for us. The environment can be saved if a collective effort is present, and if people all over the

world started now, the world would be a much cleaner, healthier, and happier place for every

living organism on this planet.

Research Methods and Data Collection

Both the research question, Why does China, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, and

Indonesia produce 50-60% of the worlds plastic pollution in the ocean and what methods are

available to solve this problem?, and my hypothesis, Overpopulation and the massive use of

plastic are the reasons for the rampant plastic pollution. Improved recycling programs, less

plastic usage, and more education will drastically reduce the amount of plastic pollution that

these countries contribute., were both questions that were investigated through interviews,

surveys, observations, and analysis. Several online articles and resources were analyzed in order

to give the researcher a broad view of the situation and suggest possible causes for the problem.

Also, an interview with an international news reporter for Public Radio International (PRI),

Patrick Winn, was interviewed in order to give a first-hand experience and advice on many key

causes to the issue and possible solutions for the issue. He was a good interviewee because he

was a reporter who lived in Thailand and has traveled all around Southeast Asia. This meant that

he had a first-hand experience with this plastic pollution issue.

For data collection, the researcher chose to conduct a survey (see Appendix A) in order to

look into personal/individual viewpoints of plastic pollution. The survey was vital because it
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allowed for investigation of the general population, which is the group responsible for the use

and waste disposal of plastic products. Throughout my previous research before data collection, I

only investigated third-person viewpoints through online research, with exception to the

interview. However, the interview and the questions (see Appendix B) only gave insight on one

individuals personal thoughts, which was insufficient in gauging the common beliefs and

practices of populations. Although the survey participants were not in Southeast Asia but rather

the U.S., the results were still valuable because many of these Southeast Asian countries model

their consumer culture and waste management practices after Western standards. Both regions

have many similar products available to consumers including soda rings, plastic bags, and

disposable plastic bottles. The 51 participants in this survey were mainly Environmental Science

students, Earth Science students, and Independent Research G/T students. The science students

were selected because of their likelihood to care for the environment (taking environmental

classes), and Independent Research G/T students were selected in order to include a more

random population (possible less environmental bias). The students, mainly sophomores, juniors,

and seniors at Mt. Hebron, were given a link to fill out a survey on Google Forms, which gauged

how much people knew about the issue and recorded personal viewpoints and preferences to

common practices link to waste and waste management. The first section of the survey contained

simple demographic information, such as the school attended, grade, and proximity to bodies of

water. The second section contained factual questions that were useful to gauge how much

participants knew about plastic pollution and waste management. Lastly, the third section

contained subjective questions which recorded plastic use preferences and opinions/views

towards plastic pollution. These questions were valuable for suggesting possible causes to the

issue. All of the survey results were displayed in graphs for comparison purposes.
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Results and Data Analysis

Demographic Questions:
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Factual Questions:

Subjective Questions:
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It was surprising to see that the majority in every factual question was correct, with the

exception to the question regarding the location of the majority of plastic pollution in the ocean.

This showed that most people have a basic understanding of plastic pollution and its detrimental

effects for the environment. This is likely due to the emphasis on the negative effects that media

always puts on plastic pollution in oceans. Also, education in the U.S. does teach basic

fundamental ideas about plastic pollution, so that could attribute to the basic understanding that

people have. The subjective questions showed that most people do indeed consume plastic

products in common ways, with about 84% to 88% following traditional practices and 11% to

14% using other alternatives. This definitely explains that most are using plastic in their daily

lives and are contributing to the problem. The subjective questions also showed that more than

95% of people do view litter in daily lives, however only 66% doubt that the environment is

clean. What was interesting was that more than 98% of people were at least somewhat bothered

by litter in the environment and had a sense of responsibility to care for it; however 51% of

participants thought that others did not care for the environment. Lastly, there were mixed results

when people were asked whether or not they would pick up litter on the side of a sidewalk.

Reasons for saying yes were generally helping the environment and picking it up because no

one else would. Reasons for saying no mainly included fears of germs and dirtiness. Reasons

for saying depends mainly included proximity to trash bins, mood, and type of trash.

These results suggest many possible solutions for these problems and the research

question. People seem to be lacking in the trust of others for the well-being of the environment,

although most people do care about the environment. This suggests that people need to be more

environmentally conscious in their daily lives or have more community activities to show the

large amount of people who care about the environment. More education about plastic pollution
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is not needed; most people have basic understandings of the issue. However, there is much

progress to be made on using other materials rather than plastic. More than 80% of people use

common consumer practices which are wasteful. Alternatives such as tote bags and water

canteens need to become more popularized and mainstream in order to reduce plastic

consumption. Also, many people fear of picking up litter because they dont want to carry trash

for long distances or because it is dirty. To avoid this problem, more neighborhood trash bins

should be placed and there should be stations where gloves could be distributed so people would

be more incentivized to pick up trash as they stroll around their neighborhood. Overall, this data

shows that there is much more progress and many solutions that need to become more popular

around the world. These suggested solutions are only a few of the many more that could be

implemented.

Discussion/Conclusion

There will be a time where humanity will look back and only think about what they could

have done rather than thinking about possible solutions now. If everyone takes part and

contributes their part to fixing the problem, there would be less pollution, more wildlife,

uncontaminated resources, and a vast amount of other environmental benefits for everyone and

everything around the world. These findings re-emphasize that there is much more

environmental progress to benefit the world as a whole. Many alternatives to plastic that have

been implemented, such as tote bags, are still not very popular and have a long way to go. The

hope of this research is to not only spread concern to the issue, but incentivize people to do

something. That is all these findings can do. Many people have the educational knowledge and

attitudes to fix the issue, but are simply lazy or non-active in actually resolving it. Even though

research was not conducted in Southeast Asia due to time and resource purposes, they still
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greatly show that everyone needs to become more environmentally-active and fix the problems

that we have created. Also, the research was somewhat focused, as it only focused on the main

causes of plastic pollution rather than focusing on every individual one. Everyone can use less

plastic and pick up trash, which are two very simple solutions that can go a long way. Plastic

pollution and many other environmental problems are not going away anytime soon, especially if

humanity continues to continue their common practices. Big change starts with small things, and

with each additional individual effort, humanity will only get closer to saving themselves and the

world.
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Bibliography

Eisenstark, Roma. "Chinas Rural Dumping Grounds." Slate, The Slate Group, 29 May 2015,
www.slate.com/articles/life/caixin/2015/05/china_s_waste_management_garbage_dispos
al_in_the_country_s_rural_areas_is.html. Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.
"History." Pollution Issues, Advameg, www.pollutionissues.com/Fo-Hi/History.html. Accessed 6
Oct. 2016.
"How plastic is made." PlasticsEurope, www.plasticseurope.org/what-is-plastic/
how-plastic-is-made.aspx. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
Indonesias Plastic Pollution Issue. 1 Million Women, 5 Aug. 2016, www.1millionwomen.com
.au/blog/indonesias-plastic-pollution-issue/ . Accessed 22 Dec. 2016.
Kukreja, Rinkesh. "What is Ocean Pollution?" Conserve Energy Future
www.conserve-energy-future.com/causes-and-effects-of-ocean-pollution.php. Accessed
23 Sept. 2016.
Lonne, Torben. "How Ocean Pollution Affects Humans [Infographic]." DIVE.in,
www.divein.com/articles/ocean-pollution/. Accessed 12 Oct. 2016.
"Ocean Pollution." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of
Commerce, Aug. 2011, www.noaa.gov/resource-collections/ocean-pollution. Accessed 15
Sept. 2016.
The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution. Clean Water Action,
www.cleanwater.org/problem-marine-plastic-pollution. Accessed 23 Sept. 2016.
Vi, Thuy. "Plastic bag pollution continues unabated in Vietnam." Thanhnien News,
Thanhniennews.com, 18 Apr. 2015, www.thanhniennews.com/society/
plastic-bag-pollution-continues-unabated-in-vietnam-41110.html. Accessed 14 Dec.
2016.
Winn, Patrick. "5 countries dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world
combined." PRI, Public Radio International, 13 Jan. 2016,
www.pri.org/stories/2016-01-13/5-countries-dump-more-plastic-oceans-rest-world-
combined. Accessed 17 Oct. 2016
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Appendix A, pg.1

Appendix A, pg. 2
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Appendix A, pg. 2 continued


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Appendix A, pg.
3
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Appendix A, pg. 3 continued


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Appendix B
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Interview Questions

1. How have rural communities have been affected by the rampant plastic pollution? Are
any communities almost or completely isolated from the problems of plastic pollution?
2. How does the population in Thailand value ocean plastic pollution? What about other
Southeastern Asian countries? What is the general idea surrounding it?
3. How have residents of Thailand and/or other countries taken advantage of the situation
other than collecting plastics for money? Have they used plastic for tools, crafts, etc.?
4. Are there other packaging material used other than plastic in Thailand and/or other
Southeastern countries? How often are these alternative materials used?
5. Does it seem like the government cares about waste management in Thailand? What is
the waste management structure like? What about other countries?
6. Are there any landfills in Thailand? What are they like? Is the trash contained or cared to
be contained? What are the attitudes of the workers?
7. How often do you see heaps of trash in your daily life in Thailand? Does it seem to
invade your life?
8. What degrading environmental effects have you observed? Are these effects drastic
enough to draw concern?

9. What solutions would you propose to the situation?