By Dr. Malik Fernando
Ocean pollution, in the context of this article, consists of garbage washed into the sea from land sources and jettisoned from ships. Depending on the proximity of land and the prevailing current systems, this garbage may wash ashore. What can we, as individuals, do to reduce ocean pollution and keep our beaches clean?
Beach clean-ups are very much an “in” thing – like tree planting, mangrove planting, and coral replanting – where groups of people have a fun day, attract a lot of publicity for themselves and the organisations of which they are members, and at the end of the day go home and let what they have planted look after themselves as best they can. Am I being cynical? Perhaps yes, but let’s face it. Well thought out and well-run replanting programmes are in action, but by and large, most are publicity stunts. Coming back to beach clean-ups, yes, they do make the beach more user-friendly and pleasing to the eye. But do they really help reduce ocean pollution? The answer is a resounding “no”. What soils the beach is mostly washed in from the sea; we should concentrate on preventing our rubbish from getting into the sea in the first place.
Beach trash is mostly carelessly disposed of non-degradable rubbish, and inland vegetation consisting of freshwater plants in large measure. At certain times of the year, seaweed may also be washed up; these are often annual growths that die during monsoon periods and break off from their attachments. So, from where does beach rubbish originate? Identification of the source is necessary to be able to plan suitable programmes to prevent the stuff washing into the sea and accumulating on beaches.
Visitors to beaches would be responsible for some of the rubbish, such as plastic bags, and bottles both plastic and glass. But the majority may be household and personal items that get washed down canals and rivers that enter the sea and then get carried by currents until finally washing up onto a beach. Depending on the part of the country we look at, different sources could be identified. In the vicinity of fishery harbours and boat landing sites, discards from boats, boat repair operations and fishing operations, such as, bits of ropes, fishing nets, fibreglass wool, and panels etc. would predominate.
Only an analysis of beach rubbish collected during a beach clean-up would give an idea of its origin – household, industrial, local trade/occupation-related, etc. One source that is seen in certain parts of the country is extra-territorial; rubbish from neighbouring or distant countries that rides the ocean currents to the shores of Sri Lanka. We have little control over this phenomenon, but should we not exercise some control over our indigenous ocean garbage?
We need to modify attitudes – of people, of local authorities, and of the government. People should be encouraged to “Take their litter back”; drop litter only into a litter bin. Local authorities should be urged to provide litter bins where people congregate, and to dispose of collected garbage ethically. The government needs to provide for the ethical disposal of garbage – no doubt a mammoth task, but if millions are being spent to attract tourists to our beaches, keeping the beaches clean becomes a priority.
Beach clean-ups only whitewash the bigger problem. But they are necessary, if we are to keep our beaches clean for those who like to spend their leisure time there. Such clean-ups should be well organised – with no additional plastic waste generated (plastic water bottles, plastic bags for t-shirts, etc.) and that the final disposal of the collected trash is planned beforehand. An analysis of the trash collected categorised percentage wise into household and personal, industrial and trade-related, and plant refuse would indicate the origin and point the way to preventive action.
(Dr. Malik Fernando is a marine naturalist, diver, and WNPS Past President. He is also a member of the WNPS Marine Committee)
The history of wildlife protection in Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with that of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) of Sri Lanka. At 128 years old, the WNPS is the third oldest non-governmental organisation of its kind in the world and was responsible for the setting up of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks in Sri Lanka, and of the formation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).