• Our Seas, Our Legacy

A Taste of Our Waste

This was first published in Asian Geographic Magazine, No. 134 Issue 01 / 2019.

Photos and text by Nathaniel Soon.

Microplastic fragment samples taken from various field sites around Singapore’s shores

We all have likely come across the common narrative of the boy who aspired to rid his beach of sea stars washed up and stranded at low-tide. The story follows that a sceptical passer-by, gesturing at the tens of thousands of sea stars in the horizon, would express doubt about his seemingly insurmountable endeavour. The boy would then proverbially respond that he may not be capable of making a difference for every sea star, but at least he did for the ones that he was able to. Parallels can be drawn to the challenges of burgeoning marine debris in our oceans today – the scale of the problem often appears too overwhelming to invoke any action that one would recognise as significant, yet the adoption of such a universal mentality only risks exacerbating the issue – “I’m not causing much harm, and I can’t do anything to help” has become the dominant rhetoric.

Yet, the numbers speak for themselves. A 2013 study by the Singapore Environmental Council, a non-governmental organisation, revealed that Singaporeans used nearly three billion plastic bags a year. The National Environmental Agency then followed up in 2017, reporting that 763,400 tonnes of plastic waste were disposed of that year but only 6 percent was recycled, landing this tiny island the new brand of a ‘throw-away nation’. Much of this marine debris ends up in the oceans as a result of improper disposal and waste management practices. Litter that floats then comes in with the tide and is deposited along the high water-mark up shore while those that sink often gets trapped among the rocky or silty substrate surrounding Singapore. Preferential attention has been given to ocean plastics particularly because unlike other forms of debris, they do not biodegrade but instead disintegrated into indistinguishable microplastic fragments, and upon consumption by marine organisms like zooplankton, coral and larger pelagic species, inevitably enters the food chain, and back into our systems. Given that Singapore’s waters are a diversity hotspot with over 17,000 species of marine biota, it remains vital that these organisms are protected against plastic pollution.

How big of a problem are ocean plastics in Singapore though? According to the Singapore Blue Plan 2018, research among the scientific community and awareness among people remain in its “infancy” – up till 2017, there existed no fundamental protocol for microplastic monitoring in Singapore and many individuals still remain ignorant to the its presence in products they consume. This knowledge gap spurred a collaboration between the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the National Parks Board (NParks). Now in its third year, the marine debris monitoring programme frequently recruits volunteers to assist in monthly sampling sessions across six field sites, such as Sisters’ Island Marine Park and the mangroves of Lim Chu Kang, of larger microplastic particles, in hopes of uncovering seasonal trends of marine pollution to establish baseline data for Singapore. Joleen Chan, a research assistant at the Department of Biological Sciences in NUS, spearheads this citizen science project. “By engaging volunteers, it is a win-win situation as researchers get scientific data to answer important questions and participants benefit as they get to experience first-hand pressing environmental issues and learn more through interactions with scientists”, she says.

Volunteers sieve through sand samples along Lim Chu Kang beach for microplastics

The International Coastal Clean-up (ICC) was also launched in Singapore since 1992. Coordinated by the non-profit The Ocean Conservancy, it is an annual event worldwide that aims to remove marine debris from coastlines and waterways worldwide and collect relevant data to better inform policy decisions at a governmental level and encourage positive change among participants. The 2016 rendition of the clean-up in Singapore saw a record 3,000 volunteers participating and after 90 minutes spent on beaches around the island, nearly 13 tonnes of marine debris, composed of 28,330 styrofoam pieces, 26,078 plastic bottles and 15,647 cigarette butts as the front-runners – were collected and properly disposed of.

Over the years, ICC Singapore has inspired the founding of smaller, decentralised non-profit initiatives, such as Trash Hero Singapore, Small Change and Little Green Men. These groups, often championed by young advocates, are similarly volunteer-led and use coastal clean-ups as an avenue to rally communities together towards greater awareness and environmental consciousness. Little Green Men was one of many participating groups in ICC Singapore 2018. Bringing together slightly over 20 volunteers, the team spent two hours clearing the beach of Chek Jawa Wetlands Reserve in Pulau Ubin of marine debris and together, they collected over 230 kg of trash. In hopes of inspiring greater and more targeted action, the breakdown of debris is also often publicised – close to 750 drink bottles and 163 plastic straws were picked up that day, which is stark considering that Chek Jawa is both offshore and restricted to public access. “For us, it is looking at something we can change as individuals, not at a corporate level. And helping to clean up our marine environments is something that we can do.”, explains co-founder Frances Loke Wei. Aside from clean-ups, Little Green Men also organises film screenings, nature walks and other zero waste initiatives. Indeed, while 230 kg of debris was removed from the beach in a day, what appears more significant to these groups is the mindsets they hope to influence, that comes with exposure and hands-on engagement through such clean-ups.

Environmental causes like Little Green Men continue to harness the positive ripple effects through their group-friendly activities by engaging the masses – families, schools and corporations alike. “This is Singapore – we know there is wildlife but we also know there is pollution and now that we have children, we want them to benefit from this knowledge”, remarks Kayne Tan, a biology teacher and father who was sure to make it a family affair.

The Little Green Men team

Understandably, waking up at the crack of dawn on a rest-reserved weekend to clean up a relatively inaccessible beach may not appear the most appealing for some. There also appears the risk of giving rise to eco-chambers, where only the same few faces show up over time. Recognising these concerns, some groups are also seeking innovative ways to appeal to Singaporeans. For instance, as part of ICC Singapore, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has teamed up with local schools to organise ‘The Clean-Up on Kayak’ event where participants pick up debris they find while paddling on two-men kayaks.

Dive volunteers returning to the boat with baskets of marine debris collected from the reefs at Lazarus Island

Another non-profit group, Our Singapore Reefs, similarly capitalises on the adventurous and novel appeal of scuba-diving. Founded by a team of local marine scientists, Our Singapore Reefs brings together dive volunteers to help in reef-cleaning initiatives. “As marine scientists, we dive in various parts of Singapore’s waters but we tend not to see what is underneath the corals. The primary goal then was to pull in support from various parties like non-governmental organisations and businesses to bring volunteers out to sea to clean up the reefs. Along the way, we also educate them about what Singapore has in our waters”, explains co-founder and research fellow at the Reef Ecology Lab in NUS, Dr. Toh Tai Chong. On the boat rides out to past clean-up sites like Lazarus Island, the scientists engage volunteers on issues like coral degradation due to ocean plastics, and this knowledge is almost immediately translated into action as they gear up and dive into the waters. Our Singapore Reefs has since adopted Project Aware’s Dive Against Debris framework of collection, sorting, weighing, systematic cataloguing and finally, proper disposal of the marine trash. According to Project Aware’s online portal where the data is uploaded and analysed by groups like Our Singapore Reefs, volunteer participation rates have spiked – from about 40 volunteers annually from 2014 to 2016 to about 447 in 2018. This, of course, coincided with an increase in trash collected from the reefs – from about 134 kg yearly in 2014 to 2016 to about 408 kg in 2017 and 1581 kg in 2018.

Volunteers get hands- on guidance and practice in weighing, sorting and cataloguing the various types of marine debris collected from the reefs

“Everybody has the ability to make a change. For marine debris, one simple thing is to reduce the number of items that we buy, consume and hence throw away. I think that is something we can all do”, added Dr. Toh. While clean-up efforts around Singapore continue to be a meaningful platform for community engagement and awareness-building, it is evident that the ultimate goal of prevention remains, in Singapore’s continued battle against marine debris.

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