On Sunday, a sperm whale was found dead floating along the shore of Kapota Island, Wakatobi, Southeast Sulawesi. The news shocked both Indonesians and the international community.
A team comprising researchers from the Academy of Marine and Fisheries Community in Wakatobi, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and locals found 115 plastic cups, 19 hard plastic pieces, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, six wood splinters, two rubber sandals, one nylon sack, and more than 1,000 pieces of plastic rope inside the animal’s stomach. The total weight of the garbage was 5.9 kilograms.
“Although we have not been able to deduce the cause of death, the facts that we see are truly awful,” said Dwi Suprapti, a marine species conservation coordinator at WWF Indonesia.
Similar incidents have occurred throughout the region. In June, a pilot whale was found dead in Thailand with 80 pieces of plastic garbage in its stomach.
A documentary film by Craig Leeson, A Plastic Ocean ( 2016 ), reveals more heart-breaking truths. A Bryde’s whale was found dead with 6 square meters of plastic sheeting inside it. The plastic blocked its digestive system, making the whale unable to eat. It died of malnourishment; a terrible, painful death.
The film also shows tragic scenes of a dolphin trapped in a plastic bag, a seal’s neck tied in plastic rope and a seal trapped in a plastic net. Every incident involved plastic.
Plastic is especially harmful to whales due to their way of eating. Whales eat by opening their mouth and sucking in the water in their path, which usually contains krill and tiny fish. However, whales can’t tell the difference between krill and plastic.
This is probably what happened to the poor sperm whale in Wakatobi. And this probably happens to many other whales and sea creatures in the ocean: mistaking plastic as their food — if they don’t get trapped by plastic waste altogether.
Plastic, obviously, should not belong in the oceans. More than 80 percent of ocean plastic leaks from land-based sources. The majority comes from just six countries: China, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Even if you don’t live near the ocean, chances are your plastic garbage has found its way to the sea.
Imagine if each plastic waste is labeled with our names — the ones who consume plastic: Would we be so reckless in throwing our garbage away? If only we could find the names of people whose plastic was inside the poor sperm whale in Wakatobi, it would be much easier to blame the ones who caused its death. What if it were my name or your name that appeared on the plastic garbage inside its stomach? What an immoral act we have done.
Fortunately, there are many people who have already started their journey of zero-waste living. Of course, those people were not born heroes. They gradually improved their awareness and took small but consistent steps until they reached a point where they no longer depended on plastic.
We can join them. Here are small steps to begin:
1. Refuse plastic straws
Avoiding plastic straws is a cheap yet impactful way to reduce waste. Be brave and remind the waiter/waitress that you don’t need a plastic straw with your beverage. I also do this when I order drinks from app-based delivery services.
It is also better if you start using alternatives, such as glass straws, stainless steel straws or bamboo straws. You can buy them online and they are pretty good as they are washable.
2. Bring your own cutlery
You can also put a fork, spoon, knife and also chopsticks in one pouch and bring them everywhere you go to avoid using plastic utensils.
3. Bring your own reusable bags
You can fold and put a reusable bag into your bags whenever you are going out. So, whether you shop in supermarkets, minimarkets or warung (roadside stall), you can avoid using plastic bags.
4. Bring your own tumbler
If you are a fan of es dawet (iced beverage with rice flour jelly, palm sugar and coconut milk), sup buah (fruit soup), es kelapa muda (iced young coconut) and the likes, you still can avoid plastic packaging by bringing your own tumbler. Tell sellers that you have brought your own tumbler and ask them politely to pour your order into it.
5. Bring your own food container
If you are a fan of street food, bring your container and ask the sellers to put your cilok (skewered aci), cireng (fried aci), batagor (fried fish dumpling), siomay (steamed wonton), and the likes inside. It’s worth a try.
6. Learn from those who are ahead
You can also learn from those who have already started their zero-waste journey by vowing to reduce, reuse and recycle. Here are some accounts that I follow to learn about zero waste: @atiit (Asri Puji Lestari), @dkwardhani (DK Wardhani, writer of Menuju Rumah Minim Sampah), @zerowasteadventure (Siska Nirmala, writer of Zero Waste Adventure), @lesswastehousewife (Icha) and @emakzerowaste (Sylvia Sourice).
Remember, your journey starts wherever it starts. First, just focus on the small and consistent actions you can do. If you want to be consistent in reducing plastic straws, do that. If you want to focus on reducing plastic bags, start with that. You don’t need to push yourself too hard in starting this journey. If you don’t have the budget to buy new zero-waste products, that’s fine.
Remember that all the heroes you look to also started with small and mindful things. The most important thing is that you are aware of this issue and you are taking action.