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Hong Kong’s marine waste clean-up mired in red tape and outdated attitudes

A small sampan manoeuvres between the fishing boats moored in the Cheung Chau typhoon shelter, while a small shrimp net is dropped over the bows to retrieve a modest catch of floating refuse.

It’s not exactly hi-tech, and nor does it appear to be very effective, because most of the floating plastic bags in its path escape the net.

It is one of a flotilla of more than 70 rubbish scavenging vessels operated by Kai Fat Harbour Cleaning, on contract to the Marine Department. They range from large, specialised sea cleaner boats to the adapted sampans.

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These vessels represent the sum total of the Hong Kong government’s effort to remove rubbish from the sea during this summer’s marine rubbish crisis; the environmental disaster that transformed coastal waters into lap sap soup, popular beaches into festering rubbish tips, and left fishermen complaining that they are now catching more rubbish in their nets than fish.

“In view of the large amount of refuse found recently, the Marine Department has enhanced the patrol and instructed the contractor to step up cleaning in coastal waters whenever accumulation of refuse is found,” a spokesman says.

The department says its contractor netted some 11,484 tonnes of floating refuse in 2015, and 6,693 tonnes from January to the end of July 2016. This represents a slight reduction in monthly rubbish removal year on year, which could be cause for concern given the proliferation of marine rubbish reported by NGOs and mass postings on social media.

Removing trash from the sea effectively should be only element, albeit an important one, of an overall, co-ordinated strategy to reduce the rubbish – and plastic in particular – polluting local seas and beaches, but some suspect the department is fighting a losing battle with obsolete weapons.

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“Definitely that fleet of trash boats is not enough, as their mouth is not wide enough, and therefore they can’t get the big flows of stuff that are often in our waters,” says Doug Woodring, co-founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, who thinks major marine rubbish incidents like the one this summer should be treated with more urgency. He believes it’s time to look at alternative methods.

“These incidents should be treated as oil spills,” he says, and suggests two repurposed fishing trawlers with surface nets be employed to capture the large aggregations of trash.

Plastic pollution of the sea is not unique to Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta, and elsewhere in the world more radical ideas to eradicate marine rubbish are already being tested.

For example, when 19-year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat revealed his innovative concepts at a TED talk in 2012, his presentation went viral and led to a successful crowdfunding campaign. That allowed him to establish his own organisation, The Ocean Cleanup, staffed with passionate scientists and engineers.

The Ocean Cleanup uses a system of floating booms carefully positioned, based on digital models of ocean currents, so it can funnel plastic rubbish into an anchored collection vessel. The debris collected would be sold and recycled to finance the project, and Slat says once scaled up to its full size of a 100km array, the system would be capable of cleaning the Pacific Ocean’s mass garbage patches, known as gyres, within 10 years.

“In the second phase of the project, now in progress, The Ocean Cleanup is considering spin-offs of its technology that would be meant for deployment in rivers and coastal areas. The idea behind these spin-offs is to intercept plastic before it reaches the oceans,” says Joost Dubois, Ocean Cleanup’s head of communications. This addresses the fact that 80 per cent of rubbish in the sea is known to originate on land. It may be an ideal system for tackling the rubbish crisis plaguing the shallow waters of the Pearl River Estuary.

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“Since river and/or coastal systems are a secondary focus for The Ocean Cleanup, we are making progress, but have only a limited allocation of resources on these spin-off ideas. Depending on specific funding, we might consider to quickly ramp up this work,” says Dubois, and, in theory at least, there should be no shortage of funding available for the South China Sea and Pearl River Delta.

Earlier this year, Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group donated US$47.1 million to an environment protection fund. The company is committed to contributing 0.3 per cent of annual revenues to the cause. (Alibaba is the owner of South China Morning Post.)

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The initiative was apparently inspired by Ma’s personal experience of marine pollution in the Qiantang River near company headquarters in Hangzhou. In July, the Chinese government announced a 15 million yuan (HK$17.4 million) environmental fund specifically for the South China Sea, and the Pearl River estuary is located near some of the richest – and most polluting – cities in China, including Hong Kong.

“We would welcome the opportunity to talk to Jack Ma if he’d be interested in participating in our efforts to clean the oceans,” says Dubois. He adds they are also happy to talk to government bodies and “would certainly consider trials” in the Pearl River Delta if it looked environmentally feasible.

The Marine Department says it “ keeps abreast of new marine cleaning technology and information from time to time” and is aware of The Ocean Cleanup. It is not convinced that it would be suitable, however.

“The system may not be ideal for Hong Kong waters, particularly for the local marine environment with the presence of vessels and busy traffic. The Marine Department understands that the system is still in its development stage and will continue to keep track of it,” the spokesman says.

The Ocean Cleanup says it has not received inquiries from any organisation in Hong Kong or China, but points out that while shipping safety is a valid concern, it has protocols covering shipping that were necessary for the system’s North Sea trials.

Another new refuse solution on trial in Europe is Seabin, an automated floating macro-waste and hydrocarbon collector designed by water sports enthusiasts Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski. Seabin aims to solve the marine litter issue in confined spaces such as typhoon shelters and marinas rather than in open seas. A water pump creates a suction effect that catches floating rubbish, oil, fuel and detergents in a removable filter inside the cylindrical bin, which can be emptied manually when full. They have partnered with a major French marina equipment manufacturer, and the Mediterranean port city of La Grande-Motte in France recently signed a collaborative deal to further develop the system.

“We would love to have a pilot port in Asia,” says Ceglinski, but adds there have been no expressions of interest to date from Hong Kong or China.

It may be that neither of these new approaches would be the panacea for marine plastic pollution in Hong Kong, but both have generated enough attention to merit serious evaluation. Unfortunately, local bureaucracy governing action to be taken on marine rubbish is a complicated affair.

If it is in a drainage channel or outfall on its way to the sea, it is the responsibility of the Drainage Services Department; if it is washed up on a beach or in a coastline area, it’s up to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, unless it is a gazetted beach. Then it is the responsibility of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. If the rubbish is found in a country park or marine park, it’s down to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department; roads near the sea or beach are overseen by the Highways Department. Only if it is actually floating in the sea does it become the responsibility of the Marine Department. Anywhere else, the Environmental Protection Department should take care of it, and it is this department which also coordinates the Clean Shorelines initiative.

One single complaint about rubbish could conceivably become the responsibility of seven different government departments within the course of a 24-hour period, depending on wind and tidal conditions. The situation is hardly conducive to the coordinated evaluation of new policy and technology, and recent scientific reports add further cause for alarm.

The amount of plastic waste entering the world’s oceans has been estimated at eight million tonnes a year, and it will double within a decade, according to research by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Another major study, undertaken by Australia’s leading scientific research agency the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, reports that almost half of the seabird species on the planet have already ingested plastic.

Modest investment in a properly coordinated evaluation of new technology that could help rid the Pearl River Delta of marine plastic waste could pay off. Such innovations could be more effective than the efforts of a sampan and shrimp net.