Saturday, August 8, 2015

Rubbish Awareness in the Mangroves

By John Gray (Yai Ling)



Before my rant, hat’s off to MAP staff Jim Enright, Thailand’s True Mangrove Hero.  Without Jim, Thailand’s mangroves would be disaster fulfilled.  Jim turns plastic junk into “Paradise Found”,  Khap Khun Mak Khrap, Sir Jim! 
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George H. Balazs Ph.D. brought marine rubbish awareness to Hawai’i’ in the 1970’s. explaining that sea turtles mistake drifting plastic bags for jellyfish - their favorite prey.  Hawai’i is fairly clean, but does get hit with pelagic and tourist rubbish.  Balazs autopsied numerous green sea turtles, finding up to two dozen plastic bags clogging sea turtles’ digestive tracks, dooming his specimens to slow death. In ocean-conscious Hawai’i this raised a red flag for marine rubbish awareness.  I already accepted the Green Sea Turtle as my “Amakua” (family God), but Belazs amplified my passion for collecting marine rubbish.

Today Hawai’i’s sea turtles are so plentiful they are almost a pest, especially for surfers.  The North Shore’s Laniakea Beach turtle colony creates traffic jams, with docents guarding the turtles from human contact.  Such is the positive result of a clean marine environment.

Long before my Amakua came along, my Sierra Club family was onto the rubbish problem – in the 50’s we boated to Catalina for the week-end, picked up rubbish from shipping along the way,  At Catalina’s isthumus chances were we were the only boat in the Bay, 

Hawai’i is my “A’ina” (homeland) but Asia, not Hawai’i, is where we win or lose the Planet. 
I researched South-East Asia and decided Thailand was my most promising choice. I knew I was accepting an uphill battle, but I didn’t know I was climbing Mount Everest.  

I miss Hawai’i with every heartbeat, but we are laying the groundwork for an Eco-Asia –
and Asia is where we win or lose the Planet

Leaving Hawai’i was my life’s most difficult decision –I take it philosophically.  Hawai’i has little marine rubbish, and for 26 years I’ve contributed to protecting  the Andaman Sea’s spectacular treasures. 


I go on my trips 3-4 days a week. The staff are so professional I disappear to stalk rubbish in my favorite coves and crevasses.  Wearing dive booties and gloves, my paddle reaching into crevasses to encourage Styrofoam, plastic bottles, plastic bags, toys and used tampons into the kayak, I often pull three bags of rubbish from Phang Nga Bay in just one day. 

My fingers are arthritic after 26 years zig-zaging to collect rubbish.  Not so bad in a Sit-On-Top but a big strain in inflatables with two guests.  I did the inflatable edition for 20 years and give Big Thanks to SOTAR for the first 9,000 black bags.  With my arthritic thumbs, I now paddle a quick and maneuverable Ocean Kayaks Tetra Single with a back well that takes at least a half bag before returning to our mother ship.

Sometimes the job is so big teamwork prevails.  This recently came to the fore when I discovered a sunken tree that fell from a cliff around the point from the Park ranger station.  Covered with “ghost: fish nets propelled by the current, the tree was a natural death trap for any marine animal.  I selected  the lowest tides and took my “Dirty Work” team to literally break the Gorgonian knot. 
We started at high tide, cleaning 12 bags of rubbish from the jungle behind the beach.

As the tide dropped the barnacle carpeted tree became bare, and so were our hands – gloves or not.  Wind and current obviously brought trash to this point, so we left the tree to catch more rubbish, inviting clean-ups for years to come.  Perhaps one day the Park Rangers will join the fray – Dream on!

Thailand’s beaches are often backed by mangroves.  Removing the rubbish from roots and trunks is difficult.  I used to crawl on my hand and knees, but with a degenerated knee (companion to my degenerated mind) I find it much easier to just to crawl on my belly through the red ants, passing the plastic and Styrofoam to an assistant behind me.  The ants are a hassle but it’s an efficient slog through deep mangroves. 

I spray my entire body with insect repellant –– and still wear swimming trunks.   The bug juice doesn’t completely stop the ants.  When ants get into long pants it’s a bitch getting them out when knee-deep in mud and mangrove roots. 


To maximize your extraction effort, join with a school or service club – more hands to the rescue.  We’ve done great work with the International Business Association of Phuket – working with a village on remote Koh Yao Yai taking about 50 bags of rubbish off their rocky point in just one day – while teaching the children the evils of Marine Rubbish. 

Every year the British International School finances a clean-up with their high schoolers.  We survey in advance, looking for heavily polluted sand beaches backed by mangroves.  This year’s effort was adjacent to a huge Five Star resort.  The resort created the rubbish but ignored our offer of cooperation – although our clean-up was literally next to their beach.  It was strange crawling on my belly through mangrove roots carpeted with Styrofoam and red ant colonies - retrieving, water bottles, wine bottles and plastic utensils from the resort while a cautious hotel staff stood by making sure these crazy Farang didn’t sneak into the hotel.

In this scenario efficient teamwork wins. One rubbish zealot crawls on their stomach through the roots, tossing as much rubbish as possible back while the “sweeper” bags the rubbish. 

Step-By-Step, marine rubbish awareness gains momentum.  Still, only a small minority “get it”. Most are Westerners like Jim.  A pleasant surprise is Southern Thai Moken (indigenous seafarers) are extremely environmental – unfortunately their Burmese brethren dump rubbish anywhere

We employ 40 Thai guides.  Guest comments praise these guides for collecting rubbish – no easy task in a wide berth inflatable kayak with two “farang” (Western) adults slowing things down.


On the downside, few if any competitors collect marine rubbish – they just contribute to the problem. Some even label their plastic water bottles so we know who tossed what into the sea.

Thailand’s Marine National Parks Department does nothing – except collecting the B400 person entry fee (about $12/person).  Phang Nga’s Deputy
Director did show once – in his well-pressed Uniform - for a University clean-up to flirt with the students.

He picked up - - - nothing.

Phang Nga Bay is downwind and downstream from the famous James Bond Island tourist trap, where venders sell carved seashells while hosting horrified baby gibbons on their shoulders.  When the vendors make a sale, they often pull out extra plastic bags that swirl into the wind – eventually drifting down to the sea caves.

Village fishermen often take families in the longtails, throwing plastic and tampons overboard (retrieving used Tampons is great fun!):  National Parks does nothing to educate villagers of the evils of marine rubbish – which decorates the mangroves adjanent to the villages. 

We are successful with local private school clean-ups, particularly British International School-Phuket, whose commitment includes paying for their annual student clean-up.  I taught “Coastal Tourism Management” at Prince of Songkla University and we did many clean-ups, some with local TV coverage.  I took off a semester to make a documentary and the Professor who stole my class has never done one.

It’s a tough slog – one that will not end in our lifetime.  On every Hong by Starlight trip I know I can count on one full rubbish bag – Styrofoam, plastic parts, toys, hairbrushes – you name it.  If it floats, it ends up in my kayak.  As I write I’m looking at my latest souvenir – a black rubber bucket encrusted in barnacles and sea shells.
Obviously this commitment wreaks havoc to your golf game (I prefer kayaking) but the numbers speak for themselves - It takes a small Styrofoam cup about 50 years to decompose; 200 years for an aluminum can and 450 years for a plastic bottle. 
That’s a great legacy to leave  our offspring. 



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Marine Debris Biodegradation Time Line
Item
Time to degrade
Paper towel
2-4 weeks
Newspaper
6 weeks
Cardboard box
2 months
Waxed milk carton
3 months
Apple core
2 months
Cotton gloves
1-5 months
Wool gloves
1 year
Plywood
1-3 years
Painted wooden sticks
13 years
Photo-degradable beverage holder
6 months
Plastic beverage holder
400 years
Plastic bags
10-20 years
Plastic bottle
100 years
Glass bottle and jars
undetermined
Disposable diapers
50-100 years
Tin can
50 years
Aluminum can
200 years
Monofilament fishing line
600 years
(Mote Marine Laboratory, 1993)


Item
Time to degrade
Paper towel
2-4 weeks
Newspaper
6 weeks
Cardboard box
2 months
Waxed milk carton
3 months
Apple core
2 months
Cotton gloves
1-5 months
Wool gloves
1 year
Plywood
1-3 years
Painted wooden sticks
13 years
Photo-degradable beverage holder
6 months
Plastic beverage holder
400 years
Plastic bags
10-20 years
Plastic bottle
100 years
Glass bottle and jars
undetermined
Disposable diapers
50-100 years
Tin can
50 years
Aluminum can
200 years
Monofilament fishing line
600 years
(Mote Marine Laboratory, 1993)

Item
Time to degrade
Paper towel
2-4 weeks
Newspaper
6 weeks
Cardboard box
2 months
Waxed milk carton
3 months
Apple core
2 months
Cotton gloves
1-5 months
Wool gloves
1 year
Plywood
1-3 years
Painted wooden sticks
13 years
Photo-degradable beverage holder
6 months
Plastic beverage holder
400 years
Plastic bags
10-20 years
Plastic bottle
100 years
Glass bottle and jars
undetermined
Disposable diapers
50-100 years
Tin can
50 years
Aluminum can
200 years
Monofilament fishing line
600 years
(Mote Marine Laboratory, 1993)


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