Where Does All the Beach Trash Come From?

While I have no doubt that much of the plastic trash on Hong Kong’s beaches and in the sea is generated locally especially during big beach events like Mid-Autumn Festival and Tuen Ng (Dragon Boat Festival) – I don’t remember it ever being as bad as it is nowadays. I grew up playing on Hong Kong beaches and actually had fun building huts out of some of the trash like driftwood, lost buoys and discarded wooden palettes. But as I remember it there was a lot of styrofoam trash (ice boxes and luch boxes and drink cups) and also plastic. But a lot of progress was made educating people not to discard their trash in country parks or in the sea with posters and TV ads. Then just as I thought it was getting better it startied getting worse. Yes, there has been an increase in Hong Kong’s population from 5.5 million when I was a child to 7 million now, but I don’t think thats to blame – the culture in Hong Kong has changed and people to guard and protect the environment much more now.

But mainlad China has changed enornously in the last 30 years starting with the economic reforms and special economic zone in Shenzhen in 1982 (or thereabouts). Now mainland China has all the same plastic packaged consumer goods and convenience foods and bottled drinks etc as Hong Kong. That has definitely changed. But the attitude to the environment is much slower to change. Big factories and local governments are being blamed for single-point pollution problems (quite rightly), but an awareness of the effects of individual actions and habits on the environment is not developed yet. So while HK has several marine-themed environmental programs and education campaigns (like Plastic Free Seas and The Hong Kong Shark Foundation etc) and volunteer-run beach clean-ups are quite common, I doubt that is the case in mainland China (if you know differently, please leave a comment).trashgate3

So the following articles from the Shanghaiist come as no surprise, but shed some light on where at least some of the trash on Hong Kong’s beaches comes from:

 beach_trash

That last one in particular explains a lot. Shenzhen Bay afterall is right next to Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta can flush trash straight into and past HK’s western edge (west Lantau) and out into the South China Sea. And the incoming tide can bring this trash as well as trash from other coastal soureces back in and onto our shores. More than that, the prevailing currents in Hong Kong change: from the northeast or the southwest depending on the season, so the notion of rubbish from Qingdao 1600 km away or Hainan 650 km away reaching Hong Kong is entirely reasonable and quite probable. trashgate2

We can not blame mainlanders for HK beach trash (even if mainlander bashing has apparently become a sport in HK), but it is clear that the ocean and the trash do not respect the HK-SAR border and to tackle the problem of beach trash on Hong Kong’s beaches and in the sea around us, we also need to work with the mainland and maybe use our experience in Hong Kong and our expertise to help them. Afterall HK has dealt with this problem for longer and “the pot should not call the kettle black”. And as the article “Foreign man is dubbed a ‘hero’ for picking up trash on Qingdao beach” shows, mainlanders are also fed up with the rubbish, but they seem to not realise that individual actions or inaction are part of the problem. So if you are expat in China, please be a “foreign hero” and teach by setting a good example (and don’t blame Chinese people for the trash – I have overheard that conversation several times and its pretty hypocritical – and racist). 

“If you would lift me up you must be on higher ground.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
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