Hongkongers clear unprecedented amount of rubbish washed up on city’s beaches
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on July 9, 2016.
By Rachel Blundy and Jessie Lau
Frankie McYuen is on a mission to save Hong Kong from its chronic waste problem – even if it means knocking on one door at a time.
The 34-year-old grocery shop owner from Lantau was so appalled by the explosion of rubbish on Upper Cheung Sha beach last weekend that he walked from house to house, urging residents to join him for a spontaneous clean-up.
What started as just 30 volunteers, soon grew to a group of more than 100 by the end of Sunday, with the help of a Facebook post. Faced with an overwhelming task, they filled hundreds of bags with rubbish, much of it plastic.
The impromptu clean-up came amid a chorus of concern across the city after an unprecedented amount of rubbish washed up on local shores last weekend.
Six to 10 times the usual volume of marine refuse was being washed up, the Environmental Protection Department said, with causes being attributed to heavy rain and floods in the Pearl River basin.
Photos of the filthy beaches went viral online and while the causes are still being explored, one positive which has come out of the negative is the display of community spirit in tackling the problem.
McYuen was just one of dozens of locals who rallied together to clean up the city’s beaches last weekend. And further clean-ups are being organised by community residents.
McYuen said locals had the greatest power to prevent Hong Kong’s beaches from becoming a psuedo-dumping ground.
“I just organised something really quickly,” he said. “We should all help as a community of Hong Kong.”
McYuen said there needed to be better education in Hong Kong about environmental impacts. He said he also hoped to persuade government officials to provide beach-cleaning equipment.
“I can see a lot of people just being slack. Just getting people to focus on cleaning the beach is not too far-fetched. But in the immediate aftermath of this wash-up, I think unfortunately there will be more to come. We have one of the best coastlines in Asia. You need to put the bureaucracy away. I say we need more tools to clean it ourselves,” he said.
Further clean-up operations are being planned by locals, including one at Stanley Beach tomorrow where volunteers are invited to enjoy a beer and a barbecue afterwards.
Andrew Strachan, a 39-year-old events organiser and keen sailor, said his decision to arrange a clean-up day using Facebook was his way of contributing to Hong Kong’s wider environmental movement.
“It is not going to solve the issue, it is going to make a small difference,” he said. “By locals getting involved and doing it, then the authorities will more readily take action.”
The scale of rubbish was the worst he had ever seen in his nine years in Hong Kong, he added.
“It was disgusting”, he said. “Being part of a community that enjoys the coastline, I was upset by it.
After pictures were shared on social media, even people in the UK were asking me about it. I tell people it is beautiful here, and it is, but it is quite hard to persuade people to come when they see those photos.”
Jo Wilson, founder of environmental group Living Lamma, said she was encouraged by the increased awareness of the problem, as well as the growing numbers of people who were attending clean-up operations, which she regularly organises.
“This is nothing out of the ordinary,” she said. “What is exciting though is that more and more people are getting involved. Last year at this point, our circle of friends who had campaigned for so many years and asked the Hong Kong government to declare marine trash a disaster were dealt a blow when instead they commissioned a report that concluded ‘marine trash does not constitute a serious problem in Hong Kong’.
“The consultants did not even once bother to come and look at the years of photographs and data that myself and other groups had collected, or even pick up the phone to ask our opinions.
“We’re hoping the government will finally grow a backbone and come out with a firm statement that labels this a disaster.”
The problem is a recurring one which environmentalists warn needs urgent action to tackle – both by the government and residents.
Lisa Christensen, founder and CEO of Hong Kong Cleanup, said the amount of rubbish over the weekend was the “worst” she had ever seen but that such build-ups occurred annually when the winds changed direction.
Although mainland China is definitely one source of shoreline waste, the group estimated that more than 50 per cent of the rubbish came from Hong Kong, Christensen said.
“We’re seeing trash hot spots, with vast amounts of what appears to be domestic waste. It’s not just your normal beach litter,” Christensen said. “There needs to be an investigation by the government. It appears to be dumping on a massive, large scale.”
Several local NGOs, including HK Cleanup and Plastic Free Seas, will meet with the government’s working group on clean shorelines on July 29 to discuss measures to reduce marine waste.
In addition to pushing for more investigations and tighter restrictions on illegal dumping, the group will also urge the government to revamp the city’s storm drains, which they say are transporting rubbish from the streets to the shores. The dumping of rubbish from fishing boats in Aberdeen Harbour, as well as junks in various locations, also had to be addressed, Christensen said.
“I’ve requested that we meet sooner and more urgently to discuss it,” she said. “This isn’t out of the blue. It’s consistently been getting worse for the past 15 years.”
Hot spots where rubbish frequently built up included beaches on Lantau and Lamma and in Sai Kung, Shek O, Stanley, Repulse Bay, Deep Water Bay and Aberdeen Harbour, she said.
Although the government needed to do more to tackle the problem, it was Hongkongers who had to change their attitude towards waste if the city was to see true change, Julia Leung, programme manager of education at Plastic Free Seas, said.
Consumers needed to be more aware of the waste they were generating and make efforts to reduce the amount of rubbish they produced – for instance cutting back on using single-use plastics like straws, recycling and opting for reusable products, Leung said.
“I think right now, people think that most of it is coming from mainland China. It’s easy for people to put the blame on our neighbours,” Leung said. “[But] this marine trash pollution problem has been around in Hong Kong for a long time. People need to start reflecting on their own behaviour – and changing it.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: turning back the tideVolunteers embark on clean-up exercise