With single use plastics getting more and more attention globally, the efforts of one Philippines-based activist have been recognised by UNESCO in the form of first prize in the regional Plastic Initiative Awards. By Henrylito D. Tacio
Davao City, Philippines. September 2019. In March this year, a marine biologist, museum curator and environmentalist called Darrell Dean Blatchley received a call from the Philippines' Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BoFAR). They had a report of a beached Cuvier's beaked in the Mabini area. The report said it was weak and vomiting blood, so Blatchley jumped into his car and drove to the scene. Sadly, the whale died, but what followed projected Blatchley into the world’s spotlight – and ended up with him being awarded first prize in the region’s UNESCO Plastic Initiative Award.
After the whale was pronounced dead, Blatchley and his team performed an autopsy. On video. They cut open the belly of the 5-metre animal and were horrified to find almost 40kg of plastics completely blocking its digestive system. It was worse than anything Blatchley had ever seen during many previous marine mammal post-mortems.
“Plastic was just bursting out of its stomach,” he said. “We pulled out the first bag, then a second. By the time we hit 16 rice sacks, there was also plastic, snack bags and big tangles of nylon ropes.”
He could not believe what he saw, and neither could millions of online viewers. “The plastic in some parts was so dense, it was almost becoming calcified; almost like a solid brick,” he told the New York Times. “It had been there for so long (that) it had started to compact.” He estimated the animal had been suffering not just for days or weeks but for months or even a year or more, before it died.
Blatchley, whose day job is running the D 'Bone Collector Museum in Davao, also volunteers across a range of initiatives seeking to educate people about the environment, including the risk to marine animals from ingesting plastic.
The museum boasts over 200 skeletons, including bears, horses, deer, monkeys, snakes, crocodiles, birds, a lion, a dugong, and dolphins – even the skeleton of a 14m sperm whale. Blatchey has collected many of the exhibits himself, but many others have been donated to the museum from around the world including from Canada, Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
This, and the publicity he produced about plastic pollution with the recent whale autopsy video, caught the eye of the UNESCO judges. They were looking for ways to help push the growing momentum to implement sustainable plastic-management strategies and prevent plastic waste from entering the marine environment. As Blatchley’s video went viral, they saw the opportunity to help cement the exposure.
“The award in itself is an affirmation that we are doing the right thing and that other countries are taking notice (of our endeavours),” Blatchley said in an interview. “This is our first international award,” he added. “With every award for us, it’s like a key on a keychain that keeps getting bigger. We are looking forward for more doors to open so we can make our work better.”
Blatchley said he was highly excited and honoured to be named as an awardee of the prize, given to schools, universities and other institutions doing work related to reuse/reduce/recycle, plastic waste management and innovation in solving plastic pollution issues. “One of the things we show to visitors (to our museum) is how some of these animals have died due to humans throwing garbage into the ocean or canals and how that kills the whales and dolphins,” he explained.
Aside from receiving The Plastic Initiative trophy, Blatchley will also be given a platform by UNESCO to publicise his project and contributions.
“It’s not so much a hate but frustration,” he replied when asked about plastics pollution. “It’s something that was invented to make like easier in many ways, but we have used it to the excessive point that it is killing us and so much wildlife. This is one way culture has become so wasteful.”