What a load of rubbish!

Act Locally, Think Globally, has become a bit of a mantra for the environmental movement. On a recent trip to Thailand’s Phuket island to check facilities for a forthcoming Asia-Pacific regional meeting I saw a great example of why this should be the case.

Although a little touristy for some, Phuket is a nice place to spend time. It has very nice long palm-fringed beaches, warm seas, forest covered mountains and picturesque offshore islets. Yes, it does have some horrendous tourist developments and forest encroachment from rubber plantations, but all in all it’s not too bad.

One thing I was pleased to see was the public awareness programme about the need to keep Phuket tidy and deal with rubbish responsibly. Being a child in the 1970s I can remember the ‘Keep Britain Tidy Campaign’ and I am sure that this campaign, even 30-40 years later, is why I feel guilty if I accidentally lose a sweet wrapper in the wind, and why I think the UK is a relatively tidy place. Whilst attempts on Phuket are not a complete success – yet – there is clearly a desire to reduce littering on the island.

Phuket rubbish Pic: Stephen Browne/FFI

Despite these efforts I was amazed to see just how much rubbish was washed up on the beaches twice a day by the incoming tide. The areas of beach most used by tourists were cleaned after each high tide, but a short walk of a few 100 metres gave the true picture. Perhaps this is a very localised example of acting locally? I was surprised to see just how many items were reoccurring amongst the flotsam and jetsam. I had read somewhere that the little plastic tube that make up cotton buds was the most abundant item of litter worldwide, being used by most and thrown into the loo, small enough to slip through filters put in place to catch rubbish in sewage. Banning plastic cotton bud tubes and replacing them with paper ones is just one small step that could have wide reaching implications, but I doubt it will happen.

The latent scientist within me couldn’t help doing a quick survey. I paced out a ten metre length of beach selected at random and counted the number of various items. This quick survey revealed that this 10 metre strip of tidal rubbish contained, 17 flip flops (thongs to some), 14 plastic water cups, 37 plastic bottle tops, four plastic lighters and two tooth brushes, plus dozens of plastic cotton bud tubes and vast range of other things. The majority of the items were clearly the product of the throwaway society we live in, but I do wonder if the flip flops were broken and discarded or dropped by fishermen or left of beaches by swimmers and swept away by the tide, either way there was a lot of them. The beach that I surveyed, albeit very casually (it was a weekend) and without replicates (I’m not that nerdy) was 14 km in length, so if the level of rubbish was consistent along its entire length, which it seemed to be, there would be an estimated 2380 flip flops, which is a lot of hopping fishermen and irate tourists.

Of course, this clearly isn’t a local issue, a quick scan of the packaging revealed that most identifiable rubbish was Malaysian in origin, with rubbish originating in Thailand no doubt washing up somewhere else. On a global scale the problem of ocean borne rubbish is huge and a major conservation issue. Rubbish dumped into the sea ends up getting trapped by ocean currents into vast rotating masses, known as Gyres. The Pacific Gyre, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as it is also known, is thought to contain over 100 million tonnes of rubbish covering an area the size of 1.2 million km2. This rubbish is not only an ugly man-made legacy that blights our seas, it also presents real threats to wildlife, including numerous endangered species, such as sea turtles and albatross.

These species either become trapped in the rubbish, or more likely and seriously, eat the rubbish and die after it becomes trapped in their stomachs, particularly albatross, who feed it to their young. Numerous photographs illustrating this abound on the internet.

Fortunately there are a number of international organisations that are campaigning about this issue and awareness is being raised, and whilst FFI doesn’t actively get involved in campaigns, we can support the actions of others and we do act locally. We are, for example, raising awareness at some of our marine project sites and looking at promoting crafts from waste plastic at Muara Angke in Indonesia and as part of our sea turtle project in Nicaragua.