“Flotsam and Jetsam may be just a pair of evil eels in a popular Disney cartoon movie, but flotsam and jetsam are real problems for Singapore’s beach cleaners.
The seaborne garbage – from seaweed to plastic bottles and stuff jettisoned from ships – gets deposited on local shores, thanks to the seasonal monsoons.
As much as five tonnes of debris are collected daily from East Coast Park beach during the south-west monsoon from May to October each year.
During the off-season, less than one tonne is collected every other day, said the National Environment Agency (NEA).
Besides cleaning up the 10.7km East Coast Park beach, NEA also ensures that Changi, Sembawang Park and Pasir Ris beaches are maintained.
Changi, which has a 6.2km stretch, can accumulate up to three tonnes of rubbish daily from November to April during the north-east monsoon. Off-season, one tonne is cleared every other day.
Pasir Ris and Sembawang Park are affected by the north-east monsoon too.
‘The most debris is at East Coast and Changi. You won’t know this because cleaners are out by 7am to sweep them clean,’ said Mr N. Sivasothi of the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore (ICCS), made up of volunteers from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research of the National University of Singapore.
ICCS adds to NEA’s efforts by organising coastal cleanups as well.
Yesterday, more than 3,000 volunteers from over 60 schools, institutes, organisations and government and corporate bodies took part in cleanup efforts across the island to mark the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) day. This year’s programme has attracted more than 4,000 volunteers, and will take place over three weekends.
ICC is an annual event conducted on the third Saturday of September in up to 100 countries.
Coordinated by the non-profit United States-based agency, Ocean Conservancy, it is now into its 25th year. It aims to remove debris and collect data on it – from shorelines, waterways and beaches worldwide.
During last year’s ICC day, over 3,000 volunteers here picked up more than 13 tonnes of trash from 20km of coastline.
The volunteer team that coordinates the ICC in Singapore also helps to conduct other cleanups here during the year, especially at mangrove and sandy shore areas that are not cleaned daily.
A spokesman for NEA said it spends about $1.4 million a year to clean the four recreational beaches here.
During the monsoons, cleaners scour the beaches twice daily; otherwise, they do it once daily or every other day.
A team of cleaners starts work as early as 6am, and the process can take as long as six hours. Because of the size of East Coast Park beach and the level of human activity, up to 30 cleaners are needed to help clear the debris. The other beaches require between three and 10 cleaners.
One cleaner drives and operates a machine that scoops up the litter, while the others, such as Mr Mahmood Amin, collect the litter manually using rakes.
‘Some of the stranger items I’ve picked up are car tyres and huge tree branches. I enjoy the work, but it would be nice if people helped by not littering,’ said the 38-year-old, who has been a cleaner for more than a year.
Collected debris goes straight to incineration plants and the Semakau landfill.
NEA’s spokesman said that other than seaweed, debris brought in by the tides is the waste thrown into the sea by people.
Earlier this month, NEA released findings of a survey of water samples which showed that the waters off Pasir Ris contained unsafe levels of enterococcus, which can cause gastro-intestinal illnesses with vomiting and diarrhoea if swimmers come into contact with it.
The spokesman said the removal of debris along beaches will not affect the enterococcus count of water, as the bacterium is found in the faeces of humans and warm-blooded animals.
Ms Nicola Carter, 44, who visits East Coast Park beach occasionally, thinks the cleanliness of Singapore’s beaches can be improved on.
‘When the tides go down, you can see plenty of trash, especially at the more popular areas. Individuals have a responsibility for keeping the beaches clean,’ said the sales manager.
Mr Sivasothi encourages the practice of ‘the three Rs’: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. He said: ‘Semakau’s landfill is where the ash of our trash goes to.
‘It was built at some cost to our natural heritage – coral reef and mangrove ecosystems in the area. We can make better use of that sacrifice by extending its lifespan if we reduce, reuse and recycle.’