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Sustainably Yours: The Importance of Beach Cleanups

We’ve all done it, walked along the beach frustrated by the deluge of plastic being regurgitated by the ocean during monsoon season. Being an environmentally responsible citizen, you join a beach cleanup, grab a bag and start picking up trash. An hour or two later your section of the beach looks cleaner and you feel good about yourself. Only to come back the next day to find the same spot that you sweated over while cleaning filled with trash again.

By Palmer Owyoung

Sunday 30 August 2020, 11:00AM

Beach cleanups may seem futile as more trash washes ashore day after day during the southwest monsoon, but they perform a vital function. Photo: Sirinath National Park

Beach cleanups may seem futile as more trash washes ashore day after day during the southwest monsoon, but they perform a vital function. Photo: Sirinath National Park

Beach cleanups are a frustrating experience, and while they may seem futile, they do make an important contribution to keeping our oceans clean. 

Where Does All the Plastic Go?

To understand how beach cleanups, make a difference it’s important to understand where our plastics go once they enter the ocean. According to a study by UK environmental consultancy Eunomia in 2016, only about 1% of the 12.2 million tonnes of plastic dumped annually into the ocean ends up floating in the five gyres despite all the notoriety they receive. Another 5% is deposited onto beaches and 94% ends up sinking to the ocean floor where it’s almost impossible to retrieve. It’s estimated that there is already 70kg of plastic trash per square kilometer on the seabed. Since we don’t completely understand the deep ocean, we don’t know what all this plastic waste is doing to the food chain and how it is affecting our planet. 

For a time, plastic will fluctuate in coastal areas between the beach and the open ocean. Going back and forth as the tides move in and out. By participating in beach cleanups, you are preventing plastic waste from moving out to the deep water where it sinks.

Cleaning beaches is also easier since they are more accessible and the concentration of trash is much higher on land. For example, the highest concentration of plastic recorded in the ocean was in the North Pacific Gyre at 18kg/km2, whereas on beaches the global average is 2,000kg/km2.

Four Reasons Beach Cleanups Are Important 

  • They prevent plastic from degrading into microplastics that are less than 5mm in diameter, which fish and other marine life eat and ends up in the food chain, poisoning us and our children.
  • They prevent plastic from sinking to the ocean floor where it’s irretrievable
  • They protect the Phuket economy, much of which is based on tourism or property investment and depends on having clean, beautiful beaches. 
  • They save the lives of marine animals by reducing the amount of plastic that they consume.

Where Does the Beach Plastic Come From?

There is much confusion about where the plastic debris found on Phuket beaches originates from. Some say that most of it comes from Malaysia, while others blame Indonesia. According to the Eunomia study, 80% of ocean trash comes from land. So most of the plastic that we see on Phuket beaches comes from us or neighboring areas in Thailand, not from foreign countries. The primary sources are:

  • Trash Bins, Trucks, and landfills – The wind blows plastic out of bins, trash trucks or landfills. Then it is carried directly into the ocean by the wind, or into canals that empty into the ocean.
  • Littering – Some trash is carelessly dropped on the street or left on beaches. This is deposited into the ocean by wind or through the canals. 
  • Toilets – Wet wipes, cotton buds, sanitary pads are often flushed down the toilet rather than disposed of in bins.  
  • Fishing Industry – Almost 50% of the plastic found floating in the five gyres is comprised of fishing nets and other equipment, according to the chief scientist at the non-profit the Ocean Conservancy

What Can You do?

UWC Thailand
  • Reduce your fish consumption – Until we can find a way to fish without nets, reducing or eliminating it from our diets is our only option. 
  • Just Say No – Refuse plastic as much as you can by using reusable bags and bottles. 
  • Biodegradable Plastic – There are dozens of non-petroleum-based plastic substitutes available that are made from plant oils and are biodegradable. One example is Avani-Eco, which makes bags and dishes from cassava and sugarcane. While Ecovative uses mushrooms to make substitutes for foam packaging.  
  • Recycle – Living in the modern world, it’s difficult to not use some plastic packaging. We can recycle some of this at one of several recycling centers on Phuket  
  • Beach Cleanups – At the moment, they are one of the best ways to keep our plastic from flowing into the ocean. Two of organisations that meet regularly are Trash Hero and Clean The Beach Bootcamp

Potential Solutions  

More Trash/Recycling Bins – Adding more bins with closing lids to the beaches and around towns is a simple way of keeping plastic and other trash from blowing into the ocean.

Debris Nets in rivers and canals – Many cities in Thailand and around the world are adding debris nets to their waterways to catch trash before it gets into the ocean. Some of these include Pattaya, Rayong, Tampa Bay and elsewhere in Florida, and Perth, Australia. Bali is installing 100 of them through an organisation called Make a Change World.

Make Recycling Easy – Norway recycles 97% of the over 500 million plastic bottles that it sells each year. They do this by giving the bottles a return value of about 10 cents, which is built into the purchase price. Users can then bring their bottles to vending machines or bins in stores where they collect the money.    

Future Solutions

Revirginized Plastic – In 2016 Japanese scientists discovered bacteria that evolved to eat PET plastic. Based on this discovery Carbios, a French company has developed enzymes to revirginize plastic, which makes it 100% recyclable, meaning the same plastic can be reused over and over again the same way that metal is rather than just downcycled into an inferior material the way it is now.     

Beach cleanups can be a frustrating experience, after seeing your hard work erased the very next day. However, when combined with debris nets, a recycling program, better waste management and individual action, they can help to reduce the amount of litter on our beaches and oceans until a time when technology can offer us a more comprehensive solution.

Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.

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