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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Season’s Greetings from Plastic Free Seas

PFS-2014-9-hi.resAs 2014 draws nearer to a close, we are looking back on our achievements of this year and documenting some of our known facts – to date, over 9000 students (in 52 schools) have been reached with school talks, a primary youth conference, workshops and action events. We have organized and participated in 31 beach cleanups and worked with many companies throughout the year with corporate talks and beach cleanups. We also helped facilitate the epic 5 day fundraising 75km Round Lantau Island Swim Challenge and our biggest achievement this year was the soft launch and trial run of the PFS Sea Classroom onboard the Little Blue Trawler.

These are our known achievements, those that we plan for. But one of the things that make us want to keep doing what we do is when we hear stories about what has happened as a result of our planned events.

Below is one of these stories.

On our first education trip out on the Sea Classroom we had over the course of the day 43 students and 6 teachers join us for a beach cleanup and a visit to the Chi Man Wan fish farm platforms. We showed the students evidence of our trash getting into our food chain through fish bitten plastics that we had found, some on the beach and some on the platforms.

Almost 2 weeks after that trip I spoke with one of the teachers and she told me how much of an impact that school excursion had made on her. She said she had never known about the consequences of the trash on our beaches and in the sea and when she held a piece of fish bitten plastic it was a shock. She spoke with her mother in India about this as her mother sends her offerings in the river tied up in a plastic bag. She said to her mother that she should stop using the plastic bag as it would then come back in negative ways and explained what she had seen. She had never thought like this before and realized that in so many ways we were causing harm, often through unintended outcomes. But changes could and should be made, no matter how seemingly small they may be. One action, or one conversation, repeated many times can make a big impact.

It has been a great year for Plastic Free Seas and we are looking forward to more ripple effects from the work that we plan for in 2015. When people choose to make a positive difference in what they do – you never know what it will lead to!

Enjoy the rest of 2014.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

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This was my roof top yesterday, 90 pairs of gloves washed and drying after a beach cleanup.  The commonly repeated mantra Reduce Reuse Recycle popped into my head when I took this photograph.  It summed up the event quite nicely.  We Reduced the amount of rubbish that was on the beach.  We Reused the gloves from previous cleanups and reused rice bags to collect plastic bottles that were then Recycled.

But it feels like the whole point of the 3Rs was missed.  And it feels like that a lot here.  Too often I hear people say ‘oh its ok to buy a water bottle every day because I can just recycle it’.  The recycle part gives people carte blanche to feel good about buying something plastic.  Recycling isn’t a perfect process, especially in Hong Kong where 99% of our recycling gets sent to China.  Does it get recycled? We hope and expect so but who actually knows?

At the beach yesterday there was a significant amount of plastic waste.  The beach had actually been cleaned that morning by contract cleaners but what surprised me most was the type of litter.  It was all thin film labels, packaging and bags.  There were a few straws but there were no bottle caps, bottles, styrofoam containers and the usual assortment of plastic odds and ends that usually washes up.  It was a strange waste separation act, sorted by the currents of the sea.

seaweedcrackersI walked along and was struck by how many bottle labels there were on a short stretch of beach – 27 in as many metres.  Why so many labels?  Where were the bottles?  Where were the lids?

labelsIt brought back to my mind the Reduce Reuse Recycle message.  In many parts of the world in regards to plastic drink bottles, the bottle caps and labels being made from different plastic to the commonly used PET of the bottles, are not recycled but are ‘waste plastics’.  In Hong Kong they are collected as low value scrap and if the price is right on the day they are sent to China, if not they are sent to landfill.

We have to get away from this idea that recycling is the answer to waste.  It clearly is not.  To recycle 1 out of three component pieces of a plastic bottle is not successful recycling!

What happened to reduce being the most important of the 3 Rs?

We all have a part to play in reducing our waste.  We cannot wait for the government to do something about our near full landfill sites before we act.  We should all be looking at our own consumption and do what we can to make bigger, more effective changes.

Why should the companies that produce all this waste (that they know can’t be recycled) get away with contributing to the trash all around us?  They are making money from this, they have a responsibility too.

Imagine if businesses really adopted this Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra, things could really be different.  Businesses have a long long history of changing to suit the market requirements and its time they took  the market’s message of waste reduction seriously.

If only they changed their practices to use sustainable materials with minimal packaging that was completely recyclable and reusable.  If the whole lifecycle of their products was considered in the production methods and costs (Cradle to Grave manufacturing) then we would see huge changes in the waste we make, use and have to dispose of.  We would see less of the thick plastic soup of floating plastic that makes our beaches unpleasant and unsafe for us and the marine life that live there (that we eat!)

floatingplasticSo here are my words I would like to see more commonly spouted than just Reduce, Reuse & Recycle …

Rethink, Refuse, Repair, Regulate, Research, Redesign, Responsibility

Last year, New Year, Next Year

DSC030562012 was a pretty important year in Hong Kong for plastic pollution.

We had the world’s biggest documented plastic pellet spill occur on our beaches in July which grabbed Hong Kong’s attention and forced the government to face the growing plastic pollution problem.  Everybody got involved in the clean up,  from people on the streets that rarely go to beaches, to people who usually only go to gazetted (or government) cleaned beaches, business leaders and of course the government themselves.

The timing worked in favour of triggering long term action on this problem too as our government was newly elected and they saw how many thousands of people got out and were cleaning pellets and trash and saying loudly ‘we want clean beaches’.  It was a united voice talking plastic pollution in Hong Kong for the first time.   Now, new policies are being developed and next week at the Chief Executive’s January 16th Policy Address we will see what big changes they have come up with. Fingers crossed.

It was a great year for me too.  I recieved incredible personal support (thank you, thank you, thank you!) from so many individuals, organisations and businesses to help achieve my goal of raising awareness of the problem of plastic pollution.  The Journey to the Plastic Ocean trip in June was a great platform to use to say ‘Hey! Our daily consumer habits are trashing our beaches, and whats more, all that rubbish is ending up in the middle of the ocean, corrupting our food chain!’.  It made people listen & then inspired many to act.talkinggyres

And now we are well into 2013.  I have quite a few resolutions (one I broke just 21 hrs after I had made it!) but a few that I intend to keep and make them habits.

Like my reusable cutlery in a pouch.

I have a couple of sets of cutlery in there (including 2 stainless steel straws ) so I can eat out with a friend and not have to use disposable cutlery, thus creating less waste.  It feels a bit like a drop in the ocean but every time I use them I notice people looking, then realising the sense in my simple act. I am determined this year to carry it with me always, it is smaller than my wallet so I have no excuse.

My other resolution is to challenge everyday ‘plastic’ habits of convenience or tradition when they make no real sense.  For example, I’m talking to supermarket managers and asking them politely if they can reduce waste by taking simple measures in their store.  One of the things that has really irked me for ages in the supermarkets is the sushi grass in the trays.  My kids eat a lot of sushi and for a while I could take my own container for them to fill as their sushi making coincided with my school run.  It was completely waste free sushi and it was great.  sushi

This plastic is completely unnecessary and a waste for the company and the environment.  So I asked the manager if it was possible to stop putting it in when they made up the sushi in the morning.  He said he would look into it and he did!  Very happy to see that it was so easy to make a small change.  A thank you card is in the post to them …

These personal actions are all small, I know.  But it is more about individuals taking responsibility for their own usage of plastic, being consciously aware of what we ‘need’, use and can avoid.  It is about what we all can do so easily to start turning the tide on our habits of consumption and waste.  When everyone mindlessly uses so much disposable plastic we get phenomenal amounts of waste.  When people start refusing cutlery, unnecessary packaging, over packaging, water bottles, plastic bags, straws, coffee cups … this mountain of waste will start to recede.  We won’t see it littering our beaches and our streets and and we will feel good that we are changing our habits so easily.  It is all small steps but these small steps will take us somewhere better.

Happy New Year to you and I hope all our good new habits will continue through this year and the next.