Heaps of Garbage Fill Malaysian Islands and Beaches
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Heaps of Garbage Fill Malaysian Islands and Beaches

‘You always knew there’s a lot of trash in the ocean, but getting to see the numbers was shocking’

Marine debris totalling 7,577 kilogrammes were picked up during the inaugural nationwide coastal and underwater clean-up operation recently.

Some of the international coastal clean-up participants in Tioman recently.

Over 4,000 volunteers joined the operation in conjunction with International Coastal Clean-Up Day and the International Year of the Reef (Iyor). The data collected by non-profit organisation Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) found plastic bottles leading the garbage pile at 30,248 pieces.

Data by Reef Check Malaysia.

Cigarette butts came at a close second with 20,299 while single-use plastic bags claimed third at 12,055. The operation also raked up 24,990 tiny plastic pieces.

Chelliah says 80 per cent of marine debris come from land.

RCM project manager Alvin Chelliah said previous clean-up operations were done at a smaller scale like Tioman (Pahang), Sibu (Johor) and Mantanani (Sabah) islands, but with the help of dive shops and resort operators around Malaysia, the operation grew into a larger scale with more data and awareness in tow.

The coastal clean-up operations that took place throughout Malaysia.

“You always knew there’s a lot of trash in the ocean, but getting to see the numbers was shocking,” said the Tioman-based marine scientist.

“It’s amazing that a good number of Malaysians are starting to realise the issue and have decided to take action without expecting any return.”

Check Malaysia assistant programme manager Mohd Shahir Yaman sorting out the many trash bags on Teluk Bakau, Tioman. Image: Asyraf Naqiuddin

In response to negative comments by netizens following the Federal Territories Ministry’s ban on plastic drinking straws effective 1 January 2020, Chelliah said more needs to be done in raising awareness among the public.

“Everything begins with small steps. The ban may serve as a wake-up call to the people to move forward in finding alternatives and better solutions,” he said.

“Eighty per cent of marine debris starts on land. For example, a piece of garbage thrown in the drain will flow into rivers, which then leads into the ocean.

“Once in the big blue, the trash will stay on the current for a long time that some plastics would even have barnacles.”

A participant flattens a plastic bottle with her feet during the operation’s trash sorting stage.

Trash that end up in ocean pose two threats towards marine life – entanglement (from ghost nets and six-pack holders, among others) and ingestion.

Asked about cases where sea creatures dying because of trash in their stomach, Chelliah said: “For the longest time, everything in the ocean was edible where these creatures could swallow anything that came their way. Even birds swoop down on anything that floats on the surface of the ocean.

“Solving the problem means we need to stop letting trash enter the ocean in the first place. The ideal way of moving forward is by reducing the production of plastics. If produced, they should be used responsibly.

“Until we are able to do that, these clean-up operations are vital. There’s a lot of trash in the ocean and we have to take out as much as possible.”

For those who wish to join RCM’s programmes, visit reefcheck.org.my or its Facebook page to stay updated with the year-round marine conservation efforts in Malaysia.

Asyraf believes there’s a story anywhere you turn that could inspire readers around the world. With a penchant for high-powered motorcycles, he hopes to one day get back in the saddle and cover the globe on two wheels.

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