Where are the sandcastles? A lament for our lost beaches.

IMG_4062 This is Evie.  She was born in Hong Kong and has spent her childhood growing up less than 100m from a beach.

Her home here is on an island in a tropical archipelago with incredible marine biodiversity.  Would you believe there are even pink dolphins living off the island she lives on! Actual dolphins that are bright pink!  There are also green sea turtles, finless porpoise and even migrating whales that pass by.  But Evie does not like the beach or like to go in the water.  She doesn’t do any water sports either. But I can’t really blame her and I feel sad, angry, resentful and frustrated that her childhood memories and her associations with the beach will not be fond ones.  There will be no memories of sandcastles, unhindered exploration of rock pools or joyous hours splashing in the water.  Only resentment at doing endless, pointless beach cleanups.  She didn’t make this mess but she has helped clean it up.

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Unfortunately this is becoming the new norm of beaches in Hong Kong, especially at this time of the year … summer.  The time of the year when you want kids to be out at the beach playing and having fun.  Diving under the waves in the cool refreshing water.  Splashing about with their mates laughing, enjoying themselves.  Running on the hot sand and spending carefree days … outside.  But it is not fun any more.  And actually it is not safe either.  Amongst all the plastic is medical waste – needles and syringes and myriad other objects that should not come into contact with bare feet.

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It used to be that after a day at the beach you would leave with salty, squeaky clean skin and hair. There would be sand in-between your toes and lots of other places.  Now, you leave the beach feeling dirty, contaminated and with microplastics sticking to your skin.  The filth of the beaches is accepted as normal by far too many people.  To see people coming to the beach and ‘not seeing’ the rubbish that swirls on the shoreline and piles along the tidelines is disturbing.  To see the next generation not wanting to engage in nature and explore our unique and wild places is truly frightening.  The disconnect between ourselves, our lifestyles and our life sustaining habitats is something that should set alarm bells ringing.  What legacy are we leaving for our children?  What do we want them to value?  What do we want them to care about?IMG_6343  How can we expect them to care about dolphins and turtles and migrating whales when the only ones that are in the news are the ones that wash up dead with bellies full of plastic trash. Trash that we have made when we eat food or snacks, drink on the run, clean our bodies or our houses.  The opportunities to see these majestic creatures in their natural habitats are limited or non existent because they themselves are struggling to survive in our local polluted waters because of continued, unabated threats. The hopelessness is overpowering.  It will take a lot of commitment and strong will of governments and corporations and also everyday people to change the current narrative of making money at any cost, consumption for convenience, poor design of products and packaging, poor waste management practices, devaluing our natural life support systems (our oceans!) and putting the individual ahead of the community.  We are all part of this big mess that we are making and we all need to acknowledge this and turn the tide on the world we are making.  We all have our role to play – what can you do to make the biggest difference?

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5 Little Ducks Went Swimming One Day …

The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.

-Florentijn Hofman

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In May 2013 the 16.5m Rubber Duck inflatable installation bobbed around Tsim Sha Tsui on a stopover on his round the world expedition/exhibition.

Hong Kong went crazy over this installation and all over the city you could buy replicas of ‘the’ rubber duck.  Goodness knows how many were sold.

Can this giant friendly, floating Rubber Duck really relieve mondial tensions?  Or is it just another catalyst for encouraging mondial pollution?

On the beach today at Lung Kwu Tan on a far flung corner of Hong Kong we picked up 5 yellow ducks!  I wonder how many yellow ducks are still floating around Hong Kong.

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Lost’n’Found with Liina Klauss

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What is the point of art?  Is it to make you question an idea?  Appreciate beauty and design?  Challenge yourself?

This is exactly what Liina Klauss does with her Vendor’s booth of Lost’n’Found treasures in Stanley for the Ocean Art Walk 2014.

Drawn in by the rainbow colours of meticulously organized ‘trash’ that has washed up on beaches around Lantau Island, Hong Kong.  When you realize that all the mostly plastic items on display were once used, loved, had purpose and had value before they found their way to the sea.  It is a conflicting mix of frustration, revulsion and admittedly quiet pleasure in seeing these objects retrieved and repurposed, connecting with people in a way they never could as isolated trash on the beach.

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The ‘bathroom’ on the shelf with toothbrushes and a cosmetics container literally brings this home.  This stuff is mine.  I use this stuff everyday.  What happens to all the stuff I have used?  Where did it end up?  Landfill? Recycled? Accidentally ‘lost’ out of the system I intended it to go?  Is one of my toothbrushes floating out at sea?

One of the many fantastic things Liina does, is getting her intended message across simply.  Connecting people with what we need to protect and showing natural beauty interspersed with what should not be found on our beaches.

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Showing intricate corals, shells, seed pods and driftwood as well as the crusted homes of marine life on lost objects makes the connection with what we need to protect, wonder over and take responsibility for.

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IMG_3424The responses from people to Liina’s installation are written on the wall.

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IMG_3448What is your response?

What will you do?

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Protect.  Reduce.  Wonder.  Refuse.  Discover.  Repurpose.

 

Are you washing your face with plastic?

TeaTreeHave you ever read the ingredients list on the back of your facial scrub?  Do you understand what all those technical and chemical ingredients are and do?  Do you really know what you are using to scrub away your facial or body skin cells?

A lot of cosmetic companies these days have been using a synthetic, non biodegradable plastic as the main abrasive in their scrubs – Polyethylene or PE micro beads!

Previously, the exfoliant was crushed shells like walnut or almond, salt or sugar.  Completely natural and completely biodegradable and harmless.

Because of the size of these micro beads it is extremely difficult to remove them from waste water treatments once they have gone down our sinks.  The end point for many plastic micro beads is the ocean and seas where they are known to be ingested by filter feeding organisms.  Whilst in the ocean these micro beads have the potential to absorb and concentrate toxic pollutants from the surrounding water.  We don’t want these in the food chain.

Most people are completely unaware that these products may contain plastic micro beads. Take for example the product above.  On quick glance it appears the scrub uses wholly natural ingredients.  The back of the bottle marketing spiel says “Superdrug Tea Tree & Peppermint Exfoliating Cream Wash contains natural walnut shell granules to gently exfoliate and cleanse your skin…’ But the ingredients list tells a different story.  Number 7 on the ingredients list is Polyethylene whilst lower down (ie with less volume) at number 12 is Juglans Regia (walnut) shell powder.

Plastic Free Seas contacted Superdrug about this explaining how Polyethylene  was not a good choice of exfoliants due to the environmental harm the micro beads cause but their response was “…we have no plans to replace Polyethylene Beads with natural or naturally derived alternatives at the moment…”

DarlieDarlie on the other hand were of a different opinion.  Did you know the blue flecks in this brand of toothpaste are plastic?  It is quite shocking really to think that tiny pieces of plastic have been added to a toothpaste.  When  Darlie were contacted their response was “The blue speckle used in All Shiny White toothpaste is safe for use. As a continuous improvement effort, the blue speckle will be replaced by hydrated silica in near future.”  Great news! 

Plastic Free Seas is part of a global campaign with US based 5 Gyres Institute (http://5gyres.org/how_to_get_involved/campaigns/) and in Europe the Plastic Soup Foundation (http://plasticsoupfoundation.org/eng/) to raise awareness and affect change in the cosmetic industry to phase out plastic micro beads.  There have been some pretty big successes so far with Unilever taking the lead in 2012, followed this year by Colgate-Palmolive, The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Beiersdorf and Procter & Gamble.  Only Unilever and The Body Shop though have committed to a phase out date (2015).

The pressure is on in the UK & Asia.  A couple of companies have a big market share here and are difficult to penetrate.  But we are persisting!

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So what can you do?  Always read the ingredients list to see if your scrub contains polyethylene.  Don’t assume because it is expensive it won’t – the most expensive scrub to date I have seen was HKD $390.

Refuse to buy scrubs containing plastic.

Tell everyone you know about plastic in body care products.

Get on to social media sites and ask these companies when they are going natural?  And write directly to the companies too.  The more pressure we can apply the quicker they will change their formulas.

‘Like’ the Plastic Free Seas Facebook page to keep up to date with campaign news and read the Plastic Free Seas website page on Micro beads to learn more about this issue.

Plastic Free Seas has written to the HK Government to expand the Product Eco-Responsibility Ordinance to include products that contain plastic micro beads.  It is being raised in LegCo on June 18th.

Plastic micro beads are designed to pollute – together we will stop the bead!

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Plastic Soup

I’m back in Hong Kong and happy to be home.  Not seeing the kids for 7 weeks was hard but knowing that I was away from them to witness and act on an environmental disaster and try and do what I can to make their future a little healthier was worth it.

The last few days have afforded me a chance for reflection on the incredible journey I have been on.  Whilst on the plane back to Tokyo for the very short 8 hour flight I spent a lot of time looking out the window.  Seeing the breathtaking blueness of the ocean blending into the sky from above led me to contemplate the 28 days it took to reach Hawaii.  I looked down on the waves and wondered if it would be possible to spot the Sea Dragon from this height.    For me the whole journey was an unbelievable experience.

We witnessed Mother Nature at her best and her… um … most interesting.  Stunning sunsets and sunrises, a full moon, the Milky Way shining so bright, dolphins playing alongside the boat, magnificent albatross gliding above, glorious sunshine, gale force winds, stinging rain, howling wind, whales, peace, quiet, isolation and incredible beauty; we had it all and more.

Every day on each daylight watch we had to do one hour timed observations.  It was both one of my favourite and saddest hours.  Sitting back to back with a friend at the front of the boat, each looking out to the water beyond we recorded everything we saw.  Being able to spend 1-2hrs a day just staring at the middle of the ocean was a privilege.  Witnessing the myriad blues or greys was such a pleasure.  But it was very sobering noting the progress of the boat by the amount of plastic that was floating past in what should be a pristine environment.  Over the weeks we documented more than 700 pieces of plastic, which translated into a piece of plastic floating by every 3 and a half minutes!  60 odd years of disposable plastic has left this legacy.  We saw toothbrushes, water bottles, shampoo bottles, cigarette lighters, Styrofoam pieces, broken buckets, crates, buoys, nets and ropes, bottle lids, containers small & large and hundreds of unidentifiable fragments.  I thought of the path we took across the Pacific Ocean and how insignificantly narrow the swath of water we sailed through was.  Indubitably the ocean is so vast and the findings from our expedition were in my thoughts as we flew over the thousands of miles we had navigated.  To put our results into perspective with the minute fraction of the ocean we surveyed is almost unimaginable.  We can still only guess at how much plastic is out there but we do know that this amount must be huge.   Sadly, the visible surface plastic is not the worst part.

Every sub-surface trawl we did contained plastic.  There were coloured micro fragments, nurdles and larger pieces trapped in the net amongst the fish, jellies and other marine life.  One of our last trawls contained the most amount of plastic and possibly the least amount of marine life, the sample contained hundreds of pieces of coloured plastic.  This was truly the infamous plastic soup.

The terrible thing is that there is no way we can clean up this mess we have already created.  We cannot sieve the entire ocean to remove this we can only work on ways to stop our addiction to plastic and try and stem the flow of plastics that make their way into the ocean everyday making this problem worse.  It needs to be a joint action from everyone; individuals, families, schools, businesses, industry and government.  We all need to work together to reduce our plastic consumption and change our purchasing attitudes, that is basically the bottom line.

What I’ve been doing in the schools …

Over the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of talking with over 200 students in primary and secondary.

I was at Discovery College talking with the Year 6s on their unit of inquiry titled “Organisations can make a difference to humankind and the environment”.  They learnt about DB Green, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Project Kaisei and 5 Gyres.  4 organisations involved in action, education and research.   They learnt about the one huge problem of plastics in our oceans and how each of the organisations was coming from a different angle to tackle the issues and contribute to finding a solution.

DB Green organises now monthly beach cleanups on several of our local beaches encouraging action from families and individuals and raises awareness through school participation and talks.

Algalita Marine Research Foundation is a leader in marine research and is committed to getting hard science to enable policy change in governments.

Project Kaisei  based in HK & US is funding research into the use of plastics as a source of fuel.

5 Gyres (in collaboration with Algalita) raises awareness in innovative ways and empowers people to do what they can to reduce their plastic footprint.

Also At Discovery College with the Year 2s last week I talked with students for their unit of inquiry on ‘Water – what are our responsibilities and what happens when we use it’  They saw how our plastic usage contributes to water pollution and the effects it has on marine birds and sealife as well as what happens to the plastic when it ends up in the ocean.  They were a great bunch of listeners – very attentive and asked excellent questions.

I am also very lucky to have been involved with the French International School in the last couple of months, despite my lack of French!  The Year 11s are producing an exhibition focusing on the Marine Debris Expedition.  The class have formed small groups/pairs and are presenting a series of posters on topics such Gyres (including a mock up of an aquarium gyre), the effects of plastic on sea birds, marine life and the food chain, the expedition, scientific methods used, cleaning the plastic from the ocean and a map of the expedition route including the areas of debris (from the tsunami and the gyres).  It has been a great experience for me talking with the older students and I have learnt things from them as well.  Their exhibition will also be on display at the school when I return and give a presentation.  I am really looking forward to seeing the end results this week.

Last week I joined the FIS year 8s on their Eco Retreat at Pui O beach.  I was one of 3 speakers leading three 45 minute workshops for the morning.  They did a mini beach cleanup and brought their finds back to the tables for analysis.  The beach we were on was a gazetted government beach so it had actually been cleaned that morning but it didn’t take very long at all to find 100+ pieces of waste.  Over 90% of the rubbish brought back was plastic.  It ranged from lots of cigarette butts, food wrappings, straws, cutlery, bottle lids, bags, medical waste (bandaids), foam from toys and food containers to fishing line and pieces of rope.  We discussed how most of it was designed to be single use but as it is made from plastic it will last for many years rather than the short ‘usage span’.   We also discussed easy ways to reduce plastic usage & wastage.  It was a great way to engage in discussions about how beach activities directly impact our marine ecosystems.

It is very inspiring for me talking with the kids at the schools.  There are always some great thought provoking questions and lots of enthusiasm and there are usually familiar faces in the groups that have been at one or more of the beach cleanups.   Lots of talks are planned in at least 6 schools for my return and I am really looking forward to sharing more information with the students in the new school year.   Please contact me if you would like me to speak at your school.