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How two women from Canada are leading the fight against marine pollution in Hong Kong

Lisa Christensen and Nissa Marion helm Ecozine, an environmental organisation behind the annual Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge

When former Canadian golf marketing executive Lisa Christensen first took part in a 1999 coastal clean-up event, little did she know she would commit her life to tackling Hong Kong’s waste problem.

Neither did she know she would later found an environmental organisation empowering tens of thousands of people to clean up the city’s shorelines every year.

Last year Christensen’s company Ecozine, a media platform devoted to sustainable lifestyles, engaged 75,623 people to clean up 4.6 million kilograms of trash from 2,447km of shorelines, country park trails and city streets during its annual Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge.

Nissa Marion is the Robin to Christensen’s Batman in fighting the city’s environmental injustice. The former model and actress from Canada joined Christensen at Ecozine in 2010 and is now the editor-in-chief of its publications. The challenge has evolved from a one-day event 16 years ago to a nine-week programme enjoyed by individuals and corporations alike. With the latest challenge ongoing since September 1 and running till December 1, Christensen and Marion shared with the Post their views on how to address the city’s problem of plastic waste.

What inspired you to start beach clean-up events in Hong Kong?

LC: When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1997, I did a lot of hiking. I was up in Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung, and was shocked at all the trash I saw on the beach and how the beach was just completely destroyed. I had never seen anything like that, growing up in Canada where we have pristine, clean oceans. I just couldn’t get over what I saw there. So I investigated and found that Hong Kong had virtually no recycling system. It had a very high consumption rate, poor waste management strategies and solutions, and a big littering problem. So I joined a beach clean-up in 1999 with Christine Loh Kung-wai. She’s now the undersecretary for the environment. I was so inspired by what I saw that I decided to organise my own beach clean-up the next year.

How did the original clean-up events eventually evolve into the annual Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge?

LC: We had about 100 volunteers the first year. In 2003, we started to get more companies involved. That year I reached out to the organisers of the International Coastal Clean-up in Washington. They said they would love to have us as their Hong Kong representative. So that’s when real growth started. We grew from 50 volunteers to 150, and then 500, and eventually 7,500 volunteers. The number is still growing. As for the Clean-up event, we have seen around a 60 per cent increase each year. Last year, we had about 75,000 participants.

How does the Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge work?

LC: We identify hundreds of beaches that have not been routinely cleaned by the government, such as mangroves, rocky shorelines, beaches and even country trails.

Companies and individuals can go on our website and choose a beach that is near their neighbourhood. They can then sign up as a team to participate. We provide all the know-how materials and education. We invite the team captain to collect and manage data when they collect the trash. This is a very important part of what we do. [The data] goes into a global index managed by Ocean Conservancy, a non-governmental ­organisation in Washington. And by the end of the challenge, teams can win awards for categories such as ‘Weirdest Item Found’, ‘Most Trash Collected’, ‘Largest Non-corporate Team’. We will invite our goodwill ambassadors like actor Daniel Wu and musician Jack Johnson to give out awards to winners at a ceremony.

What are some of the most rewarding moments in a clean-up?

NM: Almost every time we do a beach clean-up, someone in the group would come up to me and say: “Wow I had no idea. I am never using a plastic straw again,” or “I am never buying another plastic bottle of water again.” These small wins and those who share with me that they are creating a change in their lives based on their participation are so rewarding. It is inspiring to know that what happened to me is happening to other people.

How has local environmental awareness changed over the years, and how has this impacted the Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge?

NM: From our perspective, the awareness is increasing but action still needs to follow. We haven’t quite reached that tipping point yet. But we have seen people taking a stance and saying they want to do something about the environment. In 2003 when I first got involved, we would call companies and say: “Hey, we’ve got this great event and it’s free. We provide everything. It’s environmental and it’s about sustainability.” We’d say: “It’s CSR (corporate social responsibility)”, which is something they had not heard of yet. And the companies would say: “That sounds great! We love what you are doing but we don’t have any budget for that. It’s just not part of our company’s remit.” But now we have companies calling us to say: “We have the team, we have the budget and we have this CSR thing we have to fulfil, so can you help us out?” So there is this tectonic shift in the corporate world also.

LC: When we first started, companies would say there is no way I could get my staff out in the sun without a mask, especially post-Sars. People would say: “You want me to pick up trash? That’s not my job. It’s someone else’s”. But now this is considered cool.

How are global views on ocean conservation now compared to when you started?

LC: Ocean conservation and waste management were never part of anyone’s agenda. It was always air pollution or climate change. But the recent Our Ocean Conference was held for the first time in Washington. President Barack Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio and others pledged US$4.2 billion (HK$32.6 billion) to clean up our oceans.

Everyone at the conference was mentioning plastic pollution. So it has gone from being a non-issue to an issue of great significance where important people are paying attention.

Some people are blaming the mainland for our coastal pollution problems in Hong Kong. What is your response to this?

NM: The headlines say stuff like “Shocking amount of debris in Hong Kong”, but it’s really not shocking if you have been working on this issue for 16 years. It’s good that the media is picking it up. But the important thing to remember is that, yes, some trash from recent rainstorms was from China – from the Pearl River Delta. But that doesn’t absolve us of being responsible for our own waste. And there is a gross amount of waste washing up on Hong Kong shores that is from Hong Kong people. Pointing fingers is dangerous because it removes our responsibilities. [As an organisation], it’s very much our commitment to help Hong Kong take responsibility for its own waste footprint.

LC: Personally I don’t see any immediate increase in the level of pollution. It has always been there. But of course the problem is worse compared to 16 years ago. The current is changing, and with it, the water direction, which affects how much trash is brought into Hong Kong’s coastlines. It’s seasonal. Freshwater from the Pearl River Delta also brings in trash. But whatever the case, I have personally seen local fishermen chucking litter into the water. Sometimes when you have 150 extra idle fishing boats in the harbour at times when they are not allowed to fish, they throw things into the water. I have witnessed dumping action in Hong Kong waters by Hong Kong vessels and entities – pleasure crafts, fishing vessels, individuals and contractors. I have seen it all. I know there’s been dumping action going on for years because the stuff we’ve been collecting off the beach – it’s not litter left by beachgoers. They are trash that has been dumped by boats out at sea, and brought in by the waves.

What is new at this year’s Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge?

LC: This year we actually initiated a registration fee for teams. It’s the first time we are doing this. So there’s a registration fee of HK$500 for a non-governmental organisation, school or a family. It is HK$1,000 for a small or medium company and HK$3,000 for a large company with over 100 staff. One other new thing this year is that Ocean Conservancy invited Hong Kong to host its 30th anniversary event. So from November 15 to 18, Ecozine will be organising the global event, inviting all the representatives around the world to come to Hong Kong for a global conference.

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