Similar to an overflowing sink, Malaysia should turn off the tap for marine debris before it endangers marine life. The most efficient way to reduce marine plastic pollution is to focus on the source, rather than relying on beach clean-up events that are not sustainable. This will help eliminate the problem from its roots.
The historic Fort Supai is situated where the Linggi River and the Straits of Malacca meet. During low tides, saltwater inundates the area from the sea. Conversely, when high tide occurs, not only does freshwater flow in from the Linggi and Rembau rivers upstream, but also marine debris.
During a conversation with Maritime Fairtrade, Harris Raj Kumar, a staunch environmentalist and nature conservation advocate, stated: “The mangroves along the coastline near Fort Supai are deteriorating, causing concern due to the environmental damage caused by marine debris.”
On March 25, sixty volunteers came together at Fort Supai for a coastal clean-up event to rid it of plastic trash. The volunteers, made up of university students, families, and couples, all rolled up their sleeves for the monthly beach clean-up initiative led by Harris.
When inquired about his interpretation of the term “clean,” he responded: “In the current context, clean means being free of solid, chemical, or biological waste either that has been introduced due to anthropogenic activities or does not occur naturally.”
The term “clean” has become an umbrella term for environmentalism, with it encompassing a much broader range of pollutants and other issues related to the environment, including plastic pollution along mangrove coastlines.
Beach clean-up is not an adequate solution
When asked by Maritime Fairtrade whether he thinks the beach cleaning event is a good solution in the long term, Harris said: “Definitely not. Clean-ups are due to our failure to manage waste at the source. It is a corrective action, not a correction.
“To ensure that waste doesn’t pollute our waters and land, it must be managed at the source. This includes making better consumer choices regarding products that generate the least amount of waste, or waste that can be reused or recycled with simple or readily-available technologies.”
Harris echoed Nancy Wallace, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, in their opinion on the matter. She likened preventing marine debris to attempting to stop water flow from an overflowing sink by turning the tap off.
He continued: “Manufacturers need to switch to environmentally-friendly products and packaging that are sourced from sustainable and ethical sources. Additionally, they should strive for improvement in waste management and recycling services and technologies.”
“Where do you think the trash in Fort Supai originated from? What action should be taken against the source?” asked Maritime Fairtrade.
“It is quite difficult to identify the source of most waste, which consists of consumer products such as food and drink packaging, utensils, and household products,” Harris answered. “This waste could have come from townships upstream, nearby villages, picnickers along the beaches, or boats and ships out at sea.”
Always be a catalyst for change
In just four hours, the clean-up operation yielded impressive results, collecting 428.4 kg of marine debris, including polystyrene (3,099), plastic bottles (1,450), other trash (352), food wrappers (325), plastic containers (251), plastic bags (183), plastic cups and plates (125), to name a few.
The figures mentioned above are only a fraction of the entire picture. According to a media report, Malaysia has been producing more waste annually. The numbers have seen an upward trajectory, with daily waste generation increasing from 36,843 tons in 2018 to 39,936 tons in 2022. This progression is seen in 2019 (37,462), 2020 (38,081), and 2021 (38,699).
“Change happens when we make better decisions,” Harris emphasized. He urged Malaysians to always be a catalyst for change and to make responsible decisions when it comes to buying or producing, be it as individuals, families, groups, organizations, or at the workplace.
Why beach clean-up is a fallacy
Despite feeling proud of their contributions, the volunteers encountered an unforeseen problem: the collected marine debris was too contaminated for any recycling process and had to be disposed of in a landfill. The fallacy of sustainable recycling versus recycling contamination was a slap in their faces.
Businesses often hesitate to recycle the waste gathered from beach clean-up events due to the risk of hazardous materials being present. If contamination is detected, they can be subjected to additional fees and incur higher costs.
Malaysia has set an ambitious goal of achieving a 40 percent recycling rate by 2025, a significant increase from the current national recycling rate of 31.17 percent. The Malaysian government has not been able to push for policy changes, create better public awareness about recycling, better enforcement, or invest in more innovative technologies. Corporations prioritize profits over environmental concerns, and households do not recognize the importance of recycling and therefore fail to take the necessary steps.
This raises the question: Can the country reach this goal in the next four years?
Although the experience was highly disheartening for the volunteers, Harris, as the organizer, had an alternate point of view. In his own view: “A successful beach clean-up event at this point would primarily mean making a visible difference in the areas cleaned and the amount of rubbish collected. Ultimately, the success lies in the participants seeing the impact of poor waste management for themselves.”
All photos credit: AnnJil Chong