It’s a hot Sunday morning and on Sam Pak Wan beach, near Discovery Bay, the water looks clean and inviting. The vegetation and purple flowers that fringe the Lantau beach are a delight but the high tide line tells you why an early crowd has gathered here.
Half a dozen children under the age of 10 hover, waiting for instructions.
“OK, kids, the competition this morning is to see who can collect the most plastic bottle tops. Off you go,” says Tracey Read, founder of non-profit organisation Plastic Free Seas and coordinator of this beach clean-up. The parents are already collecting a bounty of plastic rubbish.
The enthusiasm of the youngsters is encouraging, but it is a shame that rubbish is what many children have to look forward to when they visit the beach – in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
Beach clean-ups are particularly popular at this time of year, with the International Coastal Cleanup, a global event led by Ocean Conservancy and organised in Hong Kong by the Green Council, which takes place until November 8, and Ecovision Asia’s Hong Kong Cleanup, running until November 1. Since the summer of 2012, when 150 tonnes of plastic pellets spilled overboard from cargo ship Yong Xin Jie 1 during a typhoon, participation rates in such events have increased.
But the public isn’t having to shoulder all of the responsibility; in the wake of the spill, the authorities established the Clean Shorelines initiative, which involves eight government departments. Chaired by director of the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) Anissa Wong Seanyee, its mandate is to clean up and prevent the creation of marine rubbish, and educate the public about the benefits of unsullied shorelines.
To determine the source of marine rubbish in Hong Kong’s waters and how it is being treated, five rounds of surveys were carried out by consultancy Mott MacDonald over a 12-month period. The EPD’s Water Policy and Science Group says the consultancy’s report and recommendations should be complete by the end of the year. There is, however, no indication of when that information will be made public.
The latest Clean Shorelines public education campaign, “Protect our coast, Leave no trace”, was launched on July 5 on Shek O beach. EPD staff handed out stainless-steel cutlery sets to beach-goers and urged the public to shun single-use plastic items such as knives, forks and bottles, and styrofoam lunchboxes.
At the launch of the campaign, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing said that despite extra clean-up efforts, large amounts of rubbish were still being left on beaches and promenades after festivals, and emphasised that disposable items should be avoided.
ACCORDING TO GLOBAL ESTIMATES, plastics make up about 80 per cent of all marine litter – defined as any “persistent, manufactured or processed solid material found disposed of, discarded or abandoned in a marine environment”, by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) – and microplastics (those that have broken down into very small pieces, some invisible to the naked eye) are now known to be the most abundant type. A recent survey of 32 sites in European waters found plastic to be, by far, the most prevalent litter item on the seabed.
“Eighty per cent of some commercial fisheries are now believed to be contaminated with microplastics,” says Professor Richard Thompson, of Plymouth University’s School of Marine Science and Engineering, in Britain. Concerns have been raised about the effects on fish, such as blockages in the gastrointestinal tract, which can lead to death, often before maturity, and the absorption of toxic components or chemicals released in the breakdown process.
Worryingly for our sea life, “concentrations of microplastics found on the beaches in Hong Kong are significantly higher than [those found in] a majority of similar studies undertaken overseas”, says Lincoln Fok Nin-hang, assistant professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education’s Department of Science and Environmental Studies. He heads a research team that is studying the problem.
Unep recognised the increase in plastic and other marine litter in our oceans as an emerging environmental issue in 2011 and has since developed a number of programmes and initiatives to combat the problem.
Delegates at the Our Ocean conference in June, organised by the US Department of State in Washington, agreed that implementation and enforcement of legislative measures were not adequate and suggested that changing consumer behaviour, and getting people to develop an appreciation for the marine environment, should drive programmes to reduce plastic use and marine litter.
This public engagement is what the Clean Shorelines working group is hoping to achieve.
“The preliminary findings [of the Mott MacDonald audit] suggest that 80 per cent of our marine waste is from local shorelines and recreational activities, so we need to focus our efforts to get the public to be more conscious and get more involved in cleaning up their trash, recycling it and not using disposable plastics,” says Yen Pun, a senior administrative officer at the EPD.
Pun says a bond has been forged between the government working group and NGOs active in environmental protection.
“It’s a two-way thing as we try to work together to promote the Clean Shorelines message,” says Pun. “[Cooperation] has helped reach the wider public.”
And the collaboration appears to be bearing fruit.
“Leading by example, [cleaning beaches] rather than telling members of the community that they need to do this has been effective in changing behaviour,” says Jo Wilson, of Living Lamma, a group set up to combat the degradation of the island’s natural beauty and village character. “Workers from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department not only come to collect the debris from the beaches for onward disposal, they also participate in the clean-ups.”
Another initiative born out of the 2012 plastic pellet spill is Coastal Watch, a project launched in June by WWF with the help of a number of NGOs involved in environmental education.
“Coastal Watch is a public-engagement programme designed to educate the public and create awareness about the prevalence of marine litter,” says Patrick Yeung Chung-wing, WWF Hong Kong’s Coastal Watch project manager.
“Because gazetted beaches and marine parks are regularly cleaned by various government departments, the public tend not to see the issue if they only visit these beaches, so we selected sites that are not regularly cleaned.”
Coastal Watch teams visit the chosen sites twice a year (the wet season and the dry) to collect data on shoreline litter and the natural surroundings. Funded by the Environment and Conservation Fund, Coastal Watch will collect data for two years and then six months will be spent analysing it before recommendations are made.
Yeung says that “although [data collection] is limited action, it is educational and those involved have become aware of the seriousness of the problem and are eager to do more and spread the message”.
One Coastal Watch participant says she had a “profound conservation experience”, according to WWF, adding, “It made me realise that we only need to think a little more and do a little more to ease the marine pollution problem.”
Yeung hopes that by being involved, participants will gain an appreciation of the biodiversity found in local waters and a desire to help conserve the environment: “It’s nice to enjoy the beach and coastal areas but we want people to know that we also have really rich wildlife in Hong Kong.”
So far, more than 800 volunteers have assessed more than half of the 27 sites chosen for the study.
“We have seen a positive response from the public about wanting to join Coastal Watch so we will have more sites next year,” says Yeung.
Participants are also invited to complete an online survey in which they are asked about their sense of belonging to the marine environment; how well they know the marine life they encounter; and their daily habits with regard to environmental matters.
“The survey allows us to compare the participants’ before and after responses to see if Coastal Watch is changing their behaviour,” says Yeung.
“If consumers generally have a high level of environmental literacy and are informed when they make their purchasing decisions, they will choose products that are more environmentally friendly,” says Fok. “This will, in turn, become a driving force for industries to act pro-environmentally.”
A number of participants in community coastal clean-ups say they have changed their behaviour after seeing the impact single-use plastic goods are having on beaches. From refusing plastic bags and styrofoam boxes to ensuring they always have a reusable water bottle or coffee cup, they are leading by example. This, it is hoped, has a positive effect on other shoppers and co-workers.
All too often, staff at restaurants and takeaways load up their customers with unwanted items such as plastic cutlery, paper napkins and straws.
However, more aware eateries have started to make changes.
Stephanie Hogan, of the Eclipse Hospitality Group, says the company is committed to eliminating plastic bottles from the restaurants it operates, which include Coyote Bar & Grill, in Wan Chai, and iCaramba!, in SoHo, and is using glass wherever possible.
“We try to go the extra mile with recycling in the office, too, and in what we do every day,” says Hogan. “We can do more with government and community support, and education.”
GIVEN MARINE LITTER IS a global problem, there is surely a need for ideas that are bigger and broader than those being implemented in Hong Kong.
One concept that recently captured the imagination of the global media was masterminded in 2012 by then 17-year-old Dutch engineering student Boyan Slat. His Ocean Cleanup project proposes to use a giant passive collection system to pick up floating marine debris in the Pacific. Slat says his invention is feasible, financially viable and could clean up half of the debris in the North Pacific Gyre, better known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, within 10 years. More than 100 inspired professionals and volunteers have joined his research team, according to the project’s website.
However, his idea is also getting a lot of flak from some you might imagine would be in the same camp. Critics, including Ocean Conservancy, suggest that cleaning up floating plastic on this scale isn’t economically, ecologically or logically sound.
Marcus Eriksen, of the 5 Gyres Institute, an NGO conducting research and education on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, says the Ocean Cleanup project sends a confusing message, suggesting it’s alright to keep consuming because someone will clean up the resulting mess. In a discussion with Slat posted on YouTube, Eriksen argues that the solutions must involve prevention: innovative product design; getting people to shun products that cannot be reused or recycled; and a reduction in packaging.
This last point is a key one, because even the most environmentally conscious consumers find it difficult to avoid plastic packaging.
“This is a problem where industry needs to work hand in hand with consumers,” says Trish Tracey, a Hong Kong resident and volunteer beach cleaner. “For instance, the supermarkets need to stop wrapping individual fruit and vegetables.
“I recently told a shop assistant that I didn’t want a bag for the drinks I was buying and that he should be charging HK$5 for the bag. He said, ‘Ah, too expensive,’ to which I replied, ‘Yes, that is the point.’ Unless we do something dramatic like this it’s not going to impact most people.
“Coffee mugs are another example; you’ve got to get a HK$2 or HK$5 discount for bringing your own coffee mug.”
Fok is working on creating an index that can be used to grade packaging for the efficient use of plastics.
Recycling is an important element of the Clean Shorelines message.
The number of recycling bins in Hong Kong has increased and recycling features heavily in the EPD’s Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013-2022. However, the recycling of plastic does not appear to warrant the same attention as that of other materials, such as glass and electronics.
A widely held perception in Hong Kong is that whatever goes into a recycling bin will be thrown into a landfill along with all the other rubbish, but the EPD says plastic and other recyclable waste is collected by appointed contractors and delivered to designated recyclers.
Unfortunately, most of these recyclers do no more than bale the plastics for onward export. Clean, high-quality recyclable plastics are accepted by the mainland while lower-quality materials are stored or shipped to countries in Southeast Asia.
Community recycling efforts can be more easily traced. Many send their waste to the Yan Oi Tong EcoPark Plastic Resources Recycling Centre, in Tuen Mun, where plastics are cleaned, sorted, shredded and baled. Some of these materials are then used to manufacture new plastic products and clothes, but the bulk is exported to the mainland and other Asian countries.
The EPD blueprint does not provide for an expansion of plastic recycling in Hong Kong. However, the department does plan to study the implementation of a producer responsibility scheme on waste, including plastic packaging, by 2018.
Hong Kong’s Plastic Disclosure Project and Ocean Recovery Alliance suggest that pressure needs to be put on manufacturers. The two groups partnered with Britain’s Trucost and Unep to publish a comprehensive report calling for the measurement and disclosure of plastic use in consumer products. The report, “Valuing Plastic: The Business Case for Measuring, Managing and Disclosing Plastic Use in the Consumer Goods Industry”, confirms that “the most significant downstream impact [of plastic products and packaging] is marine pollution.” The authors don’t suggest moving away from plastic use per se, but recommend using it in a more efficient and environmentally sustainable way, which includes effective recycling (including incineration, to produce usable ash), which could save consumer goods companies US$4 billion a year globally.
Furthermore, “by publicly reporting on plastic management, companies can demonstrate to stakeholders, including governments, investors and campaign groups, that they take their environmental responsibilities seriously”.
Many of the suggested solutions are still some years off, so what can we do in the meantime?
Teenie Ahluwalia, a working mother of two, says, “If we as consumers don’t step up and stop buying plastics, industries are encouraged to continue manufacturing [them].
“We are part of the cycle.”
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