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Troubled waters

By Wang Yuke | HK EDITION | Updated: 2021-06-05 16:00
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Hong Kong has to go the extra mile in tackling marine pollution. As the problem worsens, green groups warn that chemicals from industrial waste also pose potential hazards to marine life and humans. Wang Yuke reports from Hong Kong.

Ocean advocates and volunteers clean up garbage on the Lung Kwu Sheung Tan beach in Tuen Mun. [PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY]

It's a fine day at Discovery Bay — a popular getaway on Lantau Island from Hong Kong's hectic city life — as everything's entrancingly calm and soothing, with the high waves crashing rhythmically against the rocks on the beach, and kites sweeping down low from the azure sky.

Against the backdrop, however, is a mass of snack packages, used face masks, fruit peels, empty bottles and cans, and fragmented foam boxes strewn around beaches amid black garbage bags filled to the brim.

It's the result of the reckless behavior of some members of the public, as well as fishermen, who are the biggest contributors to marine pollution in Hong Kong, said Edwin Lau Che-feng, founder of Green Earth — an environmental group that advocates zero-waste and resource conservation.

Hong Kong has 41 gazetted beaches that are suitable for swimming and managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and another 49 non-gazetted ones. While non-gazetted beaches aren't easily accessible and not maintained by the government, it doesn't mean they're off the beaten track. Venturing out to these beaches to be closer to nature and take in fresher air, especially during the pandemic, is a much sought-after getaway from the city's hubbub. However, a huge melange of garbage is often left behind by unscrupulous beachgoers, Lau said. Some trash can be traced back to the urban areas or countryside trails, where they're carried by winds or flushed out to the beaches or the sea by rain, he said. During a typhoon, gusts of wind could carry the urban trash all the way to the oceans, Lau said, adding that even residential areas near the shores are filled with litter from elsewhere.

Marine pollution is anything but a new issue in Hong Kong, said David Michael Baker, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and an expert in marine pollution. The problem had been chronic even before Hong Kong emerged as a key hub for international trade more than a century ago. It didn't draw serious attention until 30 to 40 years ago when the issue worsened.

The relentless use of plastic bags and packages underlies the rampant plastic pollution problem at local beaches and oceans, Lau said. After the dumped plastic materials are carried out to the waters, the strong waves could break them down into smaller fragments and even pellets over time.

"Ghost nets" are also a menacing common sight in the oceans, left behind by fishermen, according to Lau. When a fishing net gets loose or detached from wherever it is, it becomes a "ghost net" floating around in the water. It's also possible that a fisherman just discards his broken net and throws it into the water, which then rolls along with the waves, collecting and trapping litter in the sea, said Dana Winograd, director operations of Plastic Free Seas.

Winograd has been leading beach cleanups at Discovery Bay with community group DB Green for 14 years, and with Plastic Free Seas throughout Hong Kong for eight years. She doesn't think the problem has improved much in the past few decades, although the only major noticeable change is that fewer plastic bags are being used after the government imposed a plastic bag levy in 2013. "I think this is only temporary," she said. "People are getting used to the extra charge."

According to Winograd, the pollution varies at different beaches and seas. "If you're on eastern Hong Kong Island, Lap Sap Wan, or Clear Water Bay area, you tend to get more fishing gear and apparatus, buoyance, fishing nets and floats. In Aberdeen Marina (a private members' club), you'll see more polystyrene foams because the fishing industry is there. You'll also see more of it on Lamma Island because they drift across the waters. So there may be more certain items in certain locations." Disposable face masks are becoming a common sight.

'We are all connected'

What's quintessential on every beach are plastic packaging, beverage bottles, body-care bottles, polystyrene, toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, tips of swaps, straws, plastic cups and food wrappings, said Winograd, reciting the long list of garbage commonly seen around Hong Kong's shores.

The volume and severity of sea pollution is also seasonal, closely tied to the currents and rain. "For example, the currents come from the southwest, starting in May, push all the rubbish coming off the land back up on to the southern side of Hong Kong Island, to Lamma Island and Lantau," she said. During the rainy season, rubbish from anywhere in the city could be washed down the storm drains and out into the sea.

Cleaning up beaches is always a taxing, herculean task. They can never been cleaned up thoroughly because the garbage comes in and out in a circular manner. "Anything that gets stuck on the rocks could be washed back out to sea by the high waves and then back again." This is palpable in the months after the typhoon season, which is from late August to late September. Winograd said they can still collect mounds of rubbish left by a typhoon several years ago. She and her team of volunteers have done up to 70 cleanups a year, and an additional 20 times or more if typhoons hit suddenly.

The cleanup after Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018 is still very fresh in her mind. The typhoon blew the trees and bushes all the way up and opened an open air path, which revealed "a cave of polystyrene as high as above my head," recalled Winograd.

A bustling port city, Hong Kong is not immune to cargo vessel collisions and other accidents in maritime trade. While such mishaps are rare, just one single incident, be it a spillage of oil or plastic pellets, could be catastrophic. This has happened in recent years.

"The world is one big ocean and we're all connected," Winograd said. "So our rubbish could end up in Australia, while garbage from Japan could end up on our shores. It's a universal issue."

Likewise, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan a decade ago could have a ripple effect. An important lesson from the Japanese tragedy is that the "ocean is a global commons and connects humanity," Baker said. "We should be concerned about how other nations use the ocean for waste removal, as well as the extraction of natural resources."

Microbeads are a form of microplastics, some so minute — just 5 millimeters or smaller — that it can't be seen with the naked eye. It can be found in body care products, like scrubs, and in cleaning products on boats, because of its abrasive property. But it is this nearly invisible item that's causing a menace to marine life.

Filter-feeding animals like oysters, mussels, clams and whale sharks can easily ingest microplastics along with food, explained Winograd. "Then, we, at the top of the food chain, can inadvertently ingest the plastics when eating seafood."

Research conducted by the University of Hong Kong, using 147 fish samples, collected between February 2016 and April 2017 by Plastic Free Seas, revealed that 60 percent of them contained microbeads. A total of 47,241 pieces of microplastics were ingested by the fish samples, of which 1,698 were microbeads. Hong Kong people's love for seafood makes them vulnerable to the potential health hazards of consuming microplastics.

People can't turn a blind eye to the invisible pollutants as their impact is equally disastrous. From a scientist's perspective, Professor Rudolf Wu Shiu-sun of the Education University of Hong Kong frets particularly about the diverse range of chemicals used during industrial production in the Pearl River Delta. His research focuses on the response of marine animals and ecosystems to environmental stresses. The chemicals are present in such a low concentration that the water treatment system can't remove them, he said. "These harmful chemicals disrupt the endocrine systems of both fish and humans (exposed to the chemicals). Worse still, studies have shown that the effect is epigenetic," meaning it can be inherited by the following generations, Wu warned.

The lack of oxygen is another issue confronting Hong Kong waters, Wu said. Since organic pollutants are poured profusely into the Pearl River Delta region, they attract a substantial amount of organisms which are big oxygen consumers, he explained. As the result, the waters are deprived of oxygen, threatening marine life.

What to do next

Thus, reducing the pollutants at the source is the most sustainable and effective answer, he said. "We must find substitutes for the harmful chemicals. They (substitutes) could be expensive and inconvenient, but we've to pay the price for what we've done to the environment. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Before, we served ourselves with the best convenience possible. Now, we've to pay for the inconvenience to marine water."

Wu said that Taiwan's robust and effective recycling system offers a frame of reference for Hong Kong to replicate. "The environmental sense among Taiwan residents is entrenched."

Winograd concedes that public education is vital in disseminating knowledge about marine pollution. "People are unnecessarily responsible for the cleanup, but once they see the polluting eyesores on the beach, which are the stuff they use, they would realize, 'I can be the solution to the problem by using less plastic'." Engaging the public in a beach cleanup or simply leading them on a beach tour can help change behavior, she's convinced. More information and knowledge of marine pollution should also be incorporated in the school curriculum. "Then, we'll see more changes happening because children can influence their parents," Winograd said.

A public consultation exercise on the Producer Responsibility Scheme on Plastic Beverage Containers is underway, and it's an encouraging start that provides an incentive to recycle their bottles, she said. "Psychologically, it also tells people the bottle has value and we should recycle it. We need more such schemes, whether it's a rebate to encourage recycling or a levy to decrease the amount of plastic people use." The government should consider other forms of legislation as well, which could reward companies that reduce plastic packaging, she said.

Baker expects more positive changes to come with collective efforts by the governments of all nations and individuals. "In 2013, the government achieved what I believe is one of the most significant conservation successes in global history. It's the cessation of benthic trawling which was severely damaging the sea floor," he said. "We've also invested in a world-class wastewater treatment system which has restored Victoria Harbour's water quality such that it's again safe for swimming."

The Hong Kong government's investment in regulating heavy metal pollution and organic pollutants has come a long way, Baker said. What tops the agenda now is to "eliminate local stressors to marine life to help enhance their resilience in the face of future climate change".

Among the stressors to contend with is the indiscriminate use of gill nets and illegal trawling, which undermine the conversation progress hard achieved thus far, Baker said.

The marine protected areas are expanding "but, perhaps, not quickly enough," he argued. The SAR government should coordinate with Chinese mainland authorities in accelerating the expansion and optimizing enforcement in the protected areas. After all, Hong Kong cannot afford to ignore the pollutants discharged from other cities in the Pearl River Delta.

"We must also think of connectivity — creating marine protected area networks — because fish do not know where it's safe to stay and where's it's not, and many species of commercial importance are migratory."

"This sort of regulation is necessary if our children are to enjoy a bountiful and healthy ocean," Baker said. "It may seem impossible now, but technological innovations may allow us some day to have zero discharge of waste. I often dream of a day when we can see the bottom of Victoria Harbour filled with fish and marine mammals."


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