I MUST confess: I have a tendency to lose count. I was especially reminded of this when I was part of a volunteer clean-up crew picking up trash from a beach just 2km from Berjaya’s The Taaras Beach and Spa Resort on Pulau Redang.
We were picking up marine debris and general rubbish and each of us were told to keep count of how many ‘X’ items we collected as part of the annual Redang Island Conservation Day (RICD) initiative.
I lost count more than once.
In my defence, it was my first clean-up, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of junk that had washed up on this isolated rocky beach, seemingly emerging out of nowhere.
I was perhaps overzealous as all I could think about was picking up as much as I could from wherever I could.
Off the top of my head, I recall finding the following: straws, aluminium cans, plastic bags, drink bottles, shoes, slippers, fishing gear, children’s toys, household/industrial plastics, and even unopened cans of engine oil.
But realising there was simply too much rubbish, I started to focus my collection on plastic bottles and discarded fishing gear.
On both sessions, we had to stay behind on the island for the boat to transport the rubbish back to the resort as it had taken up all the space on the boat.
I do not recall the exact number of items I was able to collect but it would have easily been 300 bottles and 10kg of fishing equipment over two two-hour sessions.
This is over the dozens of discarded footwear and hundreds of fragments of plastic cutlery that was picked up.
Meanwhile, beneath the turquoise waters not far from our clean-up spot, over a dozen scuba divers were doing their part to preserve the environment underwater.
It was a task I imagined to be even more challenging to tackle than on land due to the current and sediment.
Underwater, they had to contend with plastic bags and bottles, ghost nets, aluminium cans, hypodermic needles, and the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish.
After sorting and cataloguing the rubbish, our leader and Trash Hero Malaysia coordinator Mohd Faisal Abdur Rani said we had found rubbish that originated from Thailand and Vietnam,
presumably those that drifted across the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand.
“It is important for us to audit the debris so we can better understand the waste profile and with the date we gather, we can come up with a specific plan for future groups that might want to clean up the same area,” he said.
Knowing where the rubbish originates from can also help NGOs like Trash Hero present the data to the relevant government bodies, which in turn will hopefully result in action plans and become enforceable policy.
Finally, through the combined effort of 70 participants, we were able to remove 524.86kg of waste, 246.39kg of which was plastic, 78.08kg ropes, 4,645 bottles, 315 shoes/slippers, 47 straws, 28 toothbrushes, and 35 crown-of-thorns starfish.
I estimated that the total area covered would easily fit within a one sq km space.
No doubt, education plays a big part in preventing waste from going into our seas and threatening the marine life but let’s not forget our predilection for convenience when it comes to single-use plastics.
Returning to The Taaras with its private and pristine white sand beach and crystal clear waters was a stark contrast to all the filth that still needed clearing up just 10 minutes away by boat.
Later, I got a better understanding as to why the resort takes it upon itself to care not just for its own beach but also the surrounding areas, bearing in mind that the RICD is just one of its initiatives.
As The Taaras area general manager Pravir Mishra said, “We have Taaras guests who come from all over the world to see Redang but Redang is not just The Taaras, it is the whole island.
So we try to do our part by contributing and creating awareness to the rest of the island as well.”
Another reason stems from a distinctive feature that sets The Taaras apart from other resorts, which is the Sea Turtle Research Unit (Seatru) laboratory.
As a collaboration between The Taaras and Universiti Teknologi Terengganu (UTM), the resort houses a laboratory for scientists to study sea turtles right at the lobby of the resort.
The lab also focuses on education and conservation work on sea turtles, which has resulted in meaningful strides in terms of protecting them.
Moreover, just further up from the beach we were cleaning up lies the marine turtle research station, Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary – one of the most important centres for marine turtle research and protection in the country.
A key point highlighted by the various speakers during the presentations by UTM Seatru, WWF Malaysia and the Tzu Chi Foundation on conservation and protection, was the impact that humans have on marine life and the rise of micro plastics.
No surprises that single-use plastics and irresponsible rubbish disposal was the common thread too.
Joining in as one of the participants for the second year in a row was RICD patron and environmentalist, Selangor princess Tengku Zatashah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah. who is a champion of both the coastal and marine clean-ups.
“It was great being back in Redang for the second year. The beach clean-up was a real eye-opener and underwater, I picked up a lot of debris during my first dive.
“There wasn’t much on the second dive so that was a bit of good news.
“The reason why I find RICD significant is because Redang is like paradise island. And we don’t even have to go far for it. But we have to take care of it because plastic thrash is overwhelming.”
As The Taaras’ resident marine biologist Siva Prakash told me, the amount of trash on the beach we were at was just a fraction of what is around the entire island.
“We have done lots of beach clean-ups. And all over the world people are also doing this. But how long are we going to do this for?” he asked, adding that his experiences in the past with beach clean-ups was that he still saw the same amount of rubbish a few weeks later.
“The only way to reduce it (plastic waste) is to refuse using it. There are many other options out there, it is just a question of whether we are ready to take the responsibility.”
Find out more about the Malaysian chapter of the international non-governmental organisation Trash Hero at fb.com/trashheromalaysia.