Oceans in Trouble: The Marine Debris Crisis
Cathy Teng /photo byChuang Kung-ju /tr. byPhil Newell
An albatross mistakenly eats a plastic product floating on the ocean surface and dies; the stomach of a beached seal is found to be full of plastic bags; and sea turtles that should be roaming the seas carefree become entangled in fishing nets and drown. Image after image of tragically killed sealife indicates that for the sake of a little convenience, human beings are exacting a bitter price from the environment.
Academic studies indicate that each year about 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are discarded into the ocean, while the United Nations estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic waste in the sea than fish. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
It is only in the last 60 years that plastic products were invented and popularized. But because they are used to excess and discarded whenever and wherever users want, they have created an environmental catastrophe. Academic studies indicate that each year about 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are discarded into the ocean, while the United Nations estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic waste in the sea than fish.
Taiwan is a member of the international community, and naturally cannot remain aloof from this problem. Taiwan’s restrictions on the use of plastics and its recycling mechanisms are in fact more advanced than those in many Western countries. In terms of policy, plastic products are being banned or restricted one after another, and a schedule is in place to continue to reduce plastic use through 2030. Besides government policy, there have also been non-governmental advocacy and independent beach cleaning activities that allow everyone to contribute to environmental sustainability.
Jeng Ming-shiou cleans up the ocean while scuba diving. He once removed a plastic bag that was blocking the anus of a green sea turtle. (courtesy of Jeng Ming-shiou)
We have everything
If you have ever taken part in a beach cleaning, you will agree that the phrase “we have everything, nothing is too strange to be here” applies not only to auction stages, but also to marine debris.
Taiwan is surrounded by ocean, which means that our climate is moderated by monsoons, and marine currents bring migratory fish close to our shores. But the sea also links us to other nations, so that Taiwan is forced to accept an exchange of “gifts” from all over the world—in the form of trash thrown into the sea, known as “marine litter” or “marine debris.”
For this report on marine debris, we took a trip to one of the front lines in the war on ocean trash—the Penghu Islands. There we visited the O2 Lab, which has become famous for turning marine debris into works of art, and we also joined in one of the regularly scheduled beach cleaning activities of O2’s craft team. We could look out over the clear blue sea, but the beach next to it was covered with PET bottles, pieces of plastic, discarded fishing nets, and polystyrene foam. This is something that previously we had only heard about, but on this day were witnessing it first hand. Within an area a mere ten meters square, we cleared away several sackfuls of marine debris, including toothbrushes, syringes, drinking straws, flip-flops, PET bottles, polystyrene, glass bottles, floats, fishing nets, lightbulbs, and toys. During the beach cleaning, participants shared various curious objects they had discovered, including sex toys, ampoules filled with medicines, religious memorial tablets, mahjong tiles, and emergency lighting gear. There are no borders to this debris; all of it is trash from the daily lives of human beings.
Take a stroll on a Penghu beach and you will see marine debris everywhere.
But Taiwan’s beaches have not always been this way. Jeng Ming-shiou, a research fellow at the Academia Sinica’s Biodiversity Research Center, is a Penghu native who has been researching the marine ecology and doing scuba diving for more than 40 years. He says that when he was little the white sand beaches of his home island, Baisha, were pristine and beautiful, with a rich variety of marine species. But in the wake of economic development and urban growth, the sea bore the brunt of the destruction and seafloor habitats for ocean life were destroyed or damaged. This caused Jeng to come out from the ivory tower and appeal to society to pay heed to the severity of the pollution of the marine environment. In 2018, he published the results of his research team’s surveys and modeling, conducted over five years, of the trajectory of the flow of trash in the seas around the Dongsha (Pratas) Islands, which lie 400-plus kilometers southwest of Taiwan. It was the first ever academic paper from Taiwan published in the authoritative international journal Environmental Research Letters, and provides an important scientific basis for the management of plastic waste and for ocean sustainability.
Scientists use empirical surveys to gather evidence of the damage that marine debris wreaks on the environment. But in fact you merely need to walk to the nearest beach to discover overwhelming amounts of ocean trash; it just depends on whether you are willing to acknowledge what you see.
O2 Lab: Using marine debris for art
In early 2019 the O2 Lab, which had already relocated several times, settled into Longmen Village in Huxi Township on Penghu’s Magong Island. O2 Lab’s director is Tang Tsai-ling, a photographer from Taoyuan who fell in love with Penghu and decided to move there. But she also discovered that in addition to sea views of unmatched beauty, there is also an endless stream of marine debris that comes ashore at each tide, defeating all efforts to clean it up.
The O2 Lab crafts team brings together people who are concerned about the environment. Together they clean beaches and remodel sea trash, doing their bit for their beloved Penghu. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
The O2 Lab team once removed an entire bathroom from a beach. Its floor was a mosaic formed out of plastic bottle caps.
Tang Tsai-ling began to do beach cleaning on her own, and also posted beach cleaning times on Facebook, inviting everyone to lend a hand. At first, on countless days it was her alone facing off against marine debris stretching as far as the eye could see. Then one day, when she had assumed she would be cleaning the beach alone as usual, she saw in the distance three travelers who had rushed to the beach directly after disembarking from their airplane in hopes of lending Tang a little energy and support. “Their arrival made me feel that no matter how small the power of a single individual, it is still possible for you to influence others.” Moreover, Taiwanese are always afraid of doing something as unconventional as cleaning a beach alone, but Tang says: “Never mind: I will be the person who leads the way and stands by your side.”
Besides cleaning beaches, Tang began to rework marine debris. “I wanted to turn sea trash into something beautiful, to attract the attention of people who had never paid attention to the issue of marine debris.” She and her team of craftspeople have combined their creative ideas, turning floats into squid-shaped hanging decorations and discarded fishing nets into tote bags, using sea trash to create an installation piece depicting a marine debris banquet, and even decorating a marine debris Christmas tree.
Tang and her team have invested much time and energy in collecting trash from beaches, washing it, separating it by type, and drying it in the sun, so that it can be reused. This includes, for example, using fragments of plastic to make artistic creations, or using items of sea trash to substitute for new materials in school arts classes. In this way, not only can resources be reused, but children can get a greater sense of achievement by transforming trash themselves. However, even more important are the team’s ideals and intentions to take care of the environment.
Tang Tsai-ling started by doing beach cleanups on her own, and has tried to transform marine debris into works of art. Her efforts have attracted the attention of the general public to the issue of ocean trash.
An illustrated guide
“I want to tell you the story of marine debris in a hundred different ways,” says Jason Huang, cofounder of RE-THINK. The group began to promote beach cleaning activities around the coast of Taiwan in 2013, but after a while they were overcome by a deep sense of powerlessness. “Cleaning up a beach and then throwing away the trash is like throwing away the problem. But how can you resolve a problem if you don’t first understand it?” Huang asks.
To break out of the environmentalist bubble and get more people to engage with environmental issues, in 2018 RE-THINK came out with an unusual new book entitled An Illustrated Handbook of Marine Debris. With a very earnest attitude, RE-THINK set up a mobile photographic studio and photographed pieces of ocean trash from 360 degrees, then processed the images one by one and added background colors, to complete Taiwan’s first encyclopedia of marine debris. This action was even reported on by the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Many who at first wondered what on earth Huang was doing being so earnest and grandiose have nonetheless been awed by the distinctive and mysterious textures of the marine debris.
An installation art “banquet” made from marine debris warns us that plastics are quietly making their way onto our dining tables. What we throw away today will become what we eat tomorrow. (courtesy of O2 Lab)
Huang and his partners even wrote a text and story to accompany each item of sea trash, incorporating concepts from the popular game Pokémon Go to transform marine debris into weird creatures from the seafloor, while noting the location where each piece of marine debris was discovered and even posting “hit points.” Readers learn that much marine debris is virtually indestructible, taking decades or centuries to break down. There are some astonishing stories associated with some of the items. A lighter that had been swallowed by an albatross was found in the bird’s stomach on Midway Island. Because there were traditional Chinese characters printed on the lighter, it was mailed to Taiwan and is recorded in the Handbook. Huang says the stories were not selected for their novelty, but are written in hopes of giving readers some small “sense of guilt,” demonstrating that these are consequences that all must suffer.
Looking at a piece of marine debris, it can be difficult to recognize what the item originally was. But most are things intimately connected with our daily lives. The next step is for us all to think about what action we can take.
Rebuilding links between humanity and nature
Jeng Ming-shiou encourages us to think about the source of the problem, and to tackle it through policy, education, action, and advocacy. He suggests that management of the marine environment should include four major aspects: “combined monitoring of the environment and wildlife,” “bringing marine debris onshore for processing,” “international cooperation and information exchange, and tracking of debris drift paths,” and “raising citizens’ environmental consciousness.”
The Illustrated Handbook of Marine Debris incorporates concepts from the game Pokémon Go, stating the location where each item of sea trash was found, along with its “hit points.” The book expounds the issue of marine debris in a clear and understandable way. (courtesy of RE-THINK)
In addition to urging citizens to support the government’s policies to ban plastics, Jason Huang has also begun working to change habits and reduce waste. But he reminds us all to think critically about environmental issues. For example, with regard to “plastic reduction,” Huang explains that plastic items are not in themselves inherently evil; the problem lies in how people use them. Following calls for plastic reduction, many substitute materials have been developed and come onto the market, but these substitutes are often composite materials that are difficult to recycle. Without suitable recycling channels, the only option in Taiwan is to incinerate them, which creates a new problem. In addition, “environmentally friendly” products do not protect the environment just by being purchased. Studies indicate that an “environmentally friendly” cotton bag has to be reused 131 times for its environmental impact to be less than that of one plastic bag. Thus we do not protect the environment simply by reducing our use of plastics, owning environmentally friendly bags, and not using disposable eating utensils; the main thing is our “habits of use.”
“Reducing trash begins with making life a little less convenient, for example by carrying around eating utensils and water bottles,” says Tang Tsai-ling. Changing people’s behavior takes time and peer pressure. Tang’s own friends have begun carrying their own eating utensils and trying to reduce the volume of trash they produce.
Racking their brains, the people at the O2 Lab have been striving to make beach cleaning less boring. They invite volunteers to hang around for a while after cleaning a beach, to appreciate the clean sand and the matchless sea views, to play around in the cool ocean water, or to join in the contemporary fashion of checking in on social media. They lay out picnics using marine debris as decoration, or combine beach cleaning with activities like kayaking or creating installation art. This is the kind of thinking behind the launching of activities such as “ocean spray picnics” and “relaxing on a cleaned beach.”
People can take action with beach cleanups, but cleanups won’t work on their own: the real answer is reduction. This is the slogan of the O2 Lab.
Animal behaviorist Jane Goodall once said: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall we be saved.” Looking over a beautiful beach that has been cleaned, perhaps we can find an answer in our own minds as to how to renew the connection between humanity and nature. And then perhaps there will be a solution to the marine debris crisis.
If we can reforge the links between humanity and nature, and then look carefully at our beautiful beaches and ocean views, perhaps we can find a solution to the marine debris crisis. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama