Although beach cleanups are often considered only a reactive measure to the gargantuan problem of plastic waste, I have been blown away by their power to educate and bring together communities, especially amid the current divisive times.

Like many people around the world, I have been feeling overwhelmed by the so-called ‘new normal’, so decided to join the #eastcoastbeachplan cleanups, spearheaded by Samantha Thian, sustainability manager at supply chain firm HAVI, founder of social enterprise Seastainable, and an all-around inspiring eco-warrior.

The entirely volunteer-run initiative grew from Samantha undertaking cleanups by herself in July, as she noticed large pile-ups of trash on the beach at East Coast Park (likely due to the monsoon season), to a community of more than 2,600 people now.

In August alone, thanks to the joint efforts of over 800 people, almost 10 tons of trash was collected.

During my first cleanup with #eastcoastbeachplan, the five of us (that’s the maximum size of each group so as to adhere to safe distancing measures) managed to scrape together almost 40kg of trash in under an hour.

Singapore beach cleanup - before and after
Image source: Trang Chu Minh

Nevertheless I was still painfully aware that we had barely scratched the surface of the problem. Even while we were picking up countless plastic straws, bottles, packaging, abandoned shoes or disposable face masks, I could see more and more flotsam bobbing in the water, just waiting to be washed ashore.

People who know me are aware that I have long been fighting against plastic pollution, but seeing the devastating impact of single-use plastics and such reckless waste disposal first-hand never ceases to break my heart.

Roughly 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year—that’s the equivalent of a garbage truck worth of plastic driving into the sea every minute.

If we don’t change our consumption patterns, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our seas – a scary predicament that makes me really consider giving up seafood.

Singapore’s plastic problem

In Singapore, we dispose of a staggering 1.76 billion plastic items every year, based on a 2018 study by the Singapore Environment Council. This translates into an average two to four plastic bags per person per supermarket run; one to three plastic (PET) water bottles, and one to three pieces of plastic disposables, such as takeaway containers, per person per week.

Cleanup of environment
Image source: Alliance to End Plastic Waste

Based on a recent survey led by a group of National University of Singapore (NUS) alumni, Singapore households generated an additional 1,334 tons of plastic waste during the two-month circuit breaker period – equivalent to the weight of 92 double-decker buses.

So what can you do to tackle plastic pollution?

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Continue championing reusables

Singapore’s already excessive consumption of single-use plastics spiked during the lockdown due to a surge in food deliveries, and restrictions by food retailers on bring-your-own (BYO) initiatives, despite the government actively encouraging citizens to use more reusables.

According to a statement released by over 100 health experts and scientists, reusables do not increase the risk of Covid-19 transmission if basic hygiene rules are followed, so do continue to BYO your reusable containers, water bottles, tumblers or beeswax wraps.

For more ideas on how to mitigate your use of disposables, take a look at this handy list of zero waste food delivery, meal subscription plan and grocery retailers, and these practical tips to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.

Join a beach clean-up

As we gear up for World Cleanup Day on Sept 19, why not join a beach cleanup yourself?

The #eastcoastbeachplan team has put together a comprehensive repository with information on beach cleanups not just on the East Coast, but across Singapore, including information on tide tables, cleanup gear rental, and relevant data on all of the cleanups completed so far.

World Cleanup Day 2020
Image source: Shutterstock / Elizaveta Galitckaia

If you want to do it yourself with a group of friends, Seastainable has also shared some helpful advice on how to conduct a safe individual or group cleanup during Covid-19.

In addition, international NGO Alliance to End Plastic Waste has partnered with TED-Ed, TED’s youth and education initiative, and Litterati to help cleanup participants more easily track and measure the amount of trash collected.

The two-week long All_Together Global Cleanup campaign, which begins on World Cleanup Day, encourages Singaporeans to dedicate time to cleanups, download the Litterati app, enter the code ‘CLEANSG’, and upload photos of the litter they pick up.

According to a press release, Litterati leverages artificial intelligence to identify the litter from the environment captured in geo-tagged photos, and enables more transparent, data-driven cleanups, which in turn can assist long-term advocacy efforts.

Influencers supporting Litterati
Image source: Nadya Hutagalung, Aarika Lee and Charmaine Seah

The campaign set an ambitious target of educating 1 million people about the value of cleanups, and is supported by influencers such as Nadya Hutagalung, Aarika Lee or Charmaine Seah.

Calling for more responsible waste management and regulatory reform

Ultimately, cleanups provide no panacea for the issue of plastic pollution, and should be complemented with more preventative measures.

More needs to be done to promote responsible waste management, including an understanding of what can or can’t be recycled; educational programmes to encourage consumers to reduce, reuse and recycle / upcycle; and stringent regulatory frameworks, such as placing more responsibility on producers or introducing plastic bans.

I am aware that plastic-free oceans are likely wishful thinking, but joining a cleanup offers not only a solid workout, but is a small effort to prevent more trash from entering our seas, the bellies of marine creatures and ultimately our own stomachs. Not too bad for a morning stroll along a beach, isn’t it?

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