Spirit of Hong Kong

One woman aims to free Hong Kong's seas of plastic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 September, 2013, 7:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 September, 2013, 8:53pm

A month-long journey on a 72-foot yacht, sailing from Japan to Hawaii, sounds like the luxury holiday of a Hong Kong tycoon. But when Tracey Read set out in June last year, relaxing was not on the agenda. She was on a mission to see The Great Pacific Garbage Patch with her own eyes.

The Patch is a mass of plastic waste that occupies a chunk of the ocean between Asia and America. “It’s more like a soup,” says Read. It took her ten days to sail through it, collecting samples along the way.

“It’s something that has a lot of myths associated with it. I wanted to give people an understanding that this problem out there is massive and it’s really difficult to deal with, but the things that we can deal with in regards to plastic pollution are our everyday actions. This is where we can all make a difference. I really wanted to bring this message back to Hong Kong,” says Read.

This was the first time that the government really took plastic pollution seriously

Read, an Australian native who has been in Hong Kong for eight years, was inspired to act by experiences on Discovery Bay’s beaches, playing with her young son. She started organising community clean-ups to remove the trash littering the beaches and later began giving talks at local schools.

“The more I learnt about plastic pollution, the more interested I got,” she says. Eventually she decided to expand her work from the limits of her local neighbourhood and take on all of Hong Kong. Making the trip to the Garbage Patch was the first step towards the creation of Plastic Free Seas. The organisation aims for clean beaches in Hong Kong, to be achieved through education and action campaigns. “It’s an obsession,” says Read, who heads the organisation on a full-time, volunteer basis.

Two weeks after Read returned from her trip across the Pacific, Typhoon Vincente knocked several containers off a ship in July last year, causing 150 tonnes of plastic pellets to spill into waters around Hong Kong, much of which washed up on the beaches. The pellets are corn kernel-sized pieces of plastic, the raw product used by factories to manufacture all kinds of plastic goods. The pellets absorb toxins and pollutants from the water and are eaten by fish, which may eventually be eaten by humans.

The pellet spill was big news, and Read mobilised 8,000 volunteers to clean up the mess. “It was amazing. We saw hundreds of people sifting sand with colanders,” says Read. Other volunteers invented rotating mesh devices to sift out the pellets. On the first day alone, they removed five tonnes.

“It started a conversation in Hong Kong that had never happened before,” says Read. In response to the incident, the government set up the Clean Shorelines Campaign. “This was the first time that the government really took plastic pollution seriously,” says Read.

It’s an uphill battle, according to Read, who says Hong Kong’s consumer society encourages people to avoid the reality of how much waste they produce. “It’s hard to get people to stop and think, because the culture here is for somebody else to clean up after them. People don’t see how much waste they’re producing each day. There’s an expectation that everything will be wrapped in plastic and everything is disposable. It’s a time and convenience thing. It’s a fast-paced city and this is the result. It’s hard, the biggest thing to change is the attitudes.”

At present, education is the main focus for Plastic Free Seas. “A lot of the schools don’t have much environmental education,” says Read. She visits schools around Hong Kong, and is organising a youth conference involving 25 local and international schools later this year. “I want the kids to understand global issues on a local level,” says Read.

Plastic Free Seas is still in its early days, “We’ve got really big plans and some fantastic ideas. But we do need a lot of support.” At present, the organisation is funded by individual and corporate donations. Read is focused on increasing their resources to allow them to reach more people. “I really want to empower people to be part of the solutions.”