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Tide of trash swamping Hong Kong beaches is a ticking time bomb

Blatant ignorance of what happens to the tonnes of garbage generated by the city every day is appalling

Over 15 years of having the good fortune to live on a beach up in Clearwater Bay, I have earned the honourable but embarrassing title of “Lap Sap Du” – or Lap Sap Dodwell in English.

I am a bit of a laughing stock among the clan villagers living nearby, as I clamber most weekends, bedraggled and sweaty, over the shoreline below my house gathering the week’s accumulated rubbish. They would respect me if I were gathering clams, or wading at sunset with a torch to snatch mesmerised squid. But dragging rubbish up the jetty from the beach is clearly seen as the height of expatriate eccentricity.

So I was bemused but gratified to see photos this week of our chief executive and several other ministers scurrying under the blazing summer sun to clear rubbish from the Shui Hau mangroves in south Lantau. Lap sap on our beaches may suddenly have become news because of the huge surge of rubbish washing up on Hong Kong beaches in the past three weeks – in particular because of the obvious pleasure of some to blame yet another social and environmental crime on the Mainland – but for Lap Sap Du it has been an infuriating constant for the past 15 years.

What perplexes me most is not the fact that lap sap keeps washing up. I suspect that used to happen millennia ago, and will be happening another millennium from now.

Nor is it that so much plastic waste ends up in the water. That again seems inevitable, since plastics are so light, and float so readily. No. What infuriates me most is the gormless ignorance of so many in Hong Kong who appear to be wantonly clueless about what happens to our waste.

Back in 2003, some Chinese neighbours gathered a large mountain of leaves on the jetty in front of my house after an energy-sapping day of chopping overgrown trees.

They then set light to the mountain, and wandered off leaving it smouldering into the sunset. Inevitably, the tide washed in, doused the fire, and swilled the loose par-burned leaves into the water. Today, 13 years later, those leaves still swill back and forth from the beach to the jetty. They have not decomposed. They have not gone anywhere.

Lesson 1: once rubbish washes into your beach, it is going to stay there for far longer than you can dare to imagine.

My village neighbours were not lacking energy, nor lacking concern to keep the village trim. But in spite of perhaps 150 years living on the sea-edge overlooking that beach, they had failed to recognise that waste dumped into the water stays in the water. It seems that still today they believe that the ocean is an infinitely huge dumping ground
where lap sap can be swallowed and forgotten.

Lap Sap Du quickly learned that certain times were worse than others. The first black rain of the year always washed all sorts of awful things down the river and into the bay. As the normally-pristine water turned opaque, you knew this was not a healthy time for an evening swim. I face north east, straight into the teeth of any summer typhoon, and these will drive in large volumes of unwelcome debris, as will any unusually strong tides. So news that the massive rainfall in the Pearl River Delta in recent weeks had splayed thousands of tonnes of miscellaneous waste across our beaches comes as no surprise. Perhaps more surprising is the sense of public shock.

This flurry of lap sap controversy has taught me several things. First, even though the daily arrival of large amounts of plastic and other waste drives me crazy, I realise that up in Clearwater Bay I am extraordinarily lucky. The Sai Kung area accounts for just 4.9 per cent of all the marine and shoreline waste soiling Hong Kong beaches. As we face the Pacific, with prevailing winds from the ocean for much of the year, our shores are comparatively clean. Far more challenging is to live in the south and west of Hong Kong, where the Pearl River delivers lap sap in huge volumes.

Tuen Mun and Tsuen Wan account for almost half of Hong Kong’s shoreline waste, and Lantau, Lamma, Cheung Chau and other smaller islands nearby account for a further 26 per cent.

Second, it is arguable that things are getting better in Hong Kong rather than worse. Marine waste collected has amounted to a steady 15,000 tonnes a year for most of the past decade. Since the creation in November 2012 of the Government’s Interdepartmental Working Group on Clean Shorelines, much has been done to study causes, and find ways of reducing the problem. No surprises, but the Marine Refuse Study completed in summer last year examined 27 “priority” beaches and found that 95 per cent of our shoreline waste originates locally (however much some have been tempted to blame China for the recent invasion); 80 per cent of the waste starts on land rather than originating from boats or marine activity; and 70 per cent of the waste is plastics.

On one of the worst beaches (bemusingly called Lap Sap Wan near Shek O) the working group has undertaken a pilot clean-up. It took three months (the beach could not be reached by land, so everything had to be removed by boat), but before-and-after photos suggest an encouraging transformation.

Interestingly, active lobbyists for clearing our beaches are equivocal about the priority given to clean-ups. More important to attack the sources of pollution than struggle to mitigate the effects, they correctly argue. They see the appalling fetid entanglements along popular beaches as effective advertisements encouraging better behaviour.

Despite this, Clean Shorelines’ emphasis over the past year has been on publicity in schools, and on well-publicised clean-ups.

For me, the fact that beaches in the south and west are by far the most problematic means that I up in the far north east in Clearwater Bay cannot expect help any time soon. Lap Sap Du is going to remain a sweaty figure of fun for perhaps years to come.

David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Group

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