Battling the curse of marine litter – a challenge we will face with determination!

I joined the ICCS team as the IKEA Intern in early February but had yet to experience an actual cleanup until the Tanah Merah Chinese New Year Coastal Cleanup! As part of the GEM1917 Understanding And Critiquing Sustainability module, RVRC student volunteers were led by their lecturer and ICCS Coordinator, N Sivasothi aka Otterman to Tanah Merah Beach 7 on Thursday 26th February 2015.

Toddycats SG50 Interns Sankar and Lynn joined me on this important outing as we spent the morning with students and lecturers, inserted ourselves into wild pandan and other coastal plants, indefatigably pulling out the plastic bottles and styrofoam bits insulting our shores!

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After the safety briefing and collection of logistics by students, we walked to the Tanah Merah beach, which initially appeared untainted, except for a few plastic bags and bottles.

Lynn thought to herself, “what are we going to clean up? Seaweed?”

Once we looked into the coastal forest, however, we were appalled by the countless number of disposable bottles, styrofoam bits, ropes and fishing nets littered the forest floor.

At once we spread ourselves along the beach and began working – calling out the type and number of trash items to the data collector, and storing everything in the heavy duty trash bags. Some volunteers dove into the wild pandan to retrieve the bottles, bottles and more bottles buried amongst the roots and underneath leaf litter.

Sankar later said, “despite trying to help Mother Nature out, she seemed to be working against us. We were assaulted by colonies of ants, sharp Pandanus leaves and a hot sun!”

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The presence of various polymers, be it styrofoam or plastic was harrowing! Even more distressing were the tiny bits of styrofoam that had broken down into pieces less than 5mm in size. These were impossible to completely remove from the strandline – they were interspersed amongst leaf litter and roots and buried in soil and sand. We tried our best to pick up the tiny pieces, but there was a limit to what we could do.

“It really is frustrating to think that people will so casually dispose of styrofoam into the sea, where they will break apart and either be ingested by fish or litter the beaches,” Lynn protested.

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The antidote to the distressing scene was the view of students and lecturers working hard non-stop throughout the beach, removing trash with a determination. It certainly did give us a glimmer of hope.

“Lynn said “it was heartwarming to see everyone work hard together to do their part for the environment.”

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The other glimmer of hope was the persistent presence of marine life – amidst the busy work, we saw land hermit crabs, a carpet anemone (attached to a plastic bag), and a thunder crab! Nature’s persistence in the face of pollution is something we should respond to.

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We removed some 6,700 items weighing more than 386 kg of trash, consisting mostly of single use plastics a 50 kg 50 metre rope! All that trash piled into 43 trash bags from just 90 minutes of activity made us pause to reflect on many of the things we do on a daily basis – I overheard an RVRC student say he’d never use styrofoam boxes again!

“It made me realize the seriousness of human actions on the environment at a closer basis.”
– RVRC Student Wong Shuyii

“I cannot say I “enjoyed” our morning at the beach. The words that come to mind are more like “gobsmacked”, “shocked”… Very educational for me personally. So thanks very much for that.”
– Lecturer, Hugh Anderson

Tanah Merah Beach 7 is a non-recreational beach and the piles of trash recruited everyday is a symptom of the larger problem of marine trash in our oceans. It is critical that we reflect on our actions and make a change to our lifestyles, share the message and ideas about battling this curse which ails the planet.

And it begins with the very small things – do we really need that plastic straw? Or that bottled water?

ICCS will continue to organise beach and mangrove cleanups for immediate relief to the habitat and for long-term educational impact. Physically though, the extent of marine pollution is immense and will require more ideas, action, influence and lots of determination!

Sankar felt “we as a society need to take a good hard look at where our trash goes. I hope that one day, ICCS will not be necessary to keep our shores clean.”

Making a positive change for our oceans is a tough goal, but we will meet this challenge with determination!