The Big Picture

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, considers the big picture. The air we breathe, the waters that encircle the earth, these connect all living creatures. This week, she looks at the fortunes of big countries, and small-island states, and asks each person to reflect on personal consumption habits and where your waste stream ends up. Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase

This view of Englishman’s Bay is known around the world as a place of paradise.
 Photo by Anjani Ganase

Let’s talk about the air

There are about 22 million people living in Beijing, China. In this city the air is so polluted that people often wear respiratory masks to breathe as emissions from five million cars and coal fired plants release unhealthy levels of noxious gases. In December 2015, even masks were not enough; the smog of pollution closed down schools and outdoor activity, until the level of toxic particulates dropped. This pollution kills 4000 persons a day and is equivalent to smoking up to 40 cigarettes in one day! How many breaths of air have you taken since you started reading this? Don’t know? Exactly, it’s something that we easily take for granted. 

Let’s talk about our waste 

The average person produces about four pounds of waste per day; this amounts to about 1500 pounds each year. If we were to add this up for the population of Trinidad and Tobago, this is about 900,000 tonnes of trash, equivalent to fifteen cruise ships full of garbage every year. Where does it all go? Globally up to 5 % of our plastics, mostly packaging, end up in the ocean every year. There are places whose coastlines and coastal waters are already swamped by plastics. While diving along the Belize Barrier Reef, I was amazed to discover that clear little particulates suspended around me were not jellyfish but thousands of pieces of transparent plastic. The plastics that don’t travel to other coastlines end up in the stomachs of marine and bird life. By 2050, it is expected that 99% of sea birds will have plastic in their gut.

Let’s talk about the ocean

The ocean covers more than 70% of earth, and we in Tobago and Trinidad have the luxury of being surrounded by it. However, some island nations have already drowned. The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is warming the planet and melting the ice caps. Countries in the Pacific, such as the Solomon Islands, have lost islands to climate change. Other islands are under threat from advancing Pacific waves. Hundreds of people have relocated; thousands are threatened. This isn’t just the loss of homes but of livelihood and heritage. These nations will become the first climate refugees. Here in the Caribbean, our reefs provide coastal protection; they also are spawning grounds and a source of seafood. Run off from the land and garbage in coastal waters as well as over fishing have already degraded the marine ecosystems over that last 40 years. It is likely that rising and warming seawaters will further compromise our shorelines.

Let’s talk about our planet

Our planet is one that has evolved to promote life. Plants release oxygen, while they use the power of the sun and scrub up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for growth and food production - a win-win for the animal kingdom. In China, for example, humans have overturned the balance of nature: trees are cleared for industry, coal is burned and blanket the atmosphere with particulates that block out the sun. Every step in the natural cycle is broken. Citizens of Beijing have become so urbanised that they’ve lost that connection with the very thing that keeps them alive.

Let’s talk about our home

Trinidad and Tobago is not visibly suffering from direct impacts of long-term pollution, destruction or climate change. However, time is not in our favour. Even if we take steps to preserve our environment, take a look at our surroundings. What most of us don’t see is the river of garbage – styrofoam and plastics mainly – that streams on the Orinoco current and fuses with our coastal waters. A closer look at the clear waters on our shorelines would reveal less than healthy water quality and eroding coasts.

It’s not too late

So why do we need to care? We can still choose to keep our islands and seas healthy; and in that way, keep our lives, careers and homes healthy. So we can continue to not have to think that every breath we take might kill us. We may not have to worry that living by the sea is going to destroy our homes, that the waters we swim in are not going to infect our food. By caring, we choose governments that deeply understand and represent our best interests. Governments who are not afraid of choosing innovative and greener ways to develop, rather than following other countries who have sacrificed nature and beauty to grow. Just as importantly, we need to have good representation regionally and internationally because the actions of a few countries may be detrimental to all. While the pollution experienced by the Chinese and the options to reduce it for the health of its citizens is in control of that government, the loss of the islands of the Pacific nations is the result of emissions from the developed countries. Finally, it’s not impossible, as countries like Bhutan and Costa Rica show, to allow environmental conservation to improve the economy.

Castara Bay – Scenic and unspoilt coastline of Tobago. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Albert S, Leon JX, Grinham AR, Church JA, Gibbes BR, Woodroffe C (2016). Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef island dynamics in the Solomon Islands, Environmental Research Letters, 11(5).

Rohde RA, Muller RA (2015) Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources. PLoS ONE 10(8)

Wilcox C, Van Sebille E, Hardesty BD (2015), Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. PNAS, 112(38).

Jambeck JR, Geyer R, Wilcox C, Siegler TR, Perryman M, Andrady A, Narayan R, Law KL (2015) Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science Magazine, 347(6223).


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