Around twice a month, Harry Chan puts on his wetsuit and dives to the bottom of the seabed around Hong Kong. At 65 years old, it is a therapeutic ritual that he has persisted with for over five years. But rather than going in search of marine life, he is looking for another invasive species – rubbish.

Harry Chan
Volunteer clean-up diver Harry Chan. Photo: Harry Chan.

The sea around Hong Kong is awash with trash. Beaches littered with waste are a common sight and discarded plastic bottles can be seen bobbing along coastlines. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Aberdeen Harbour, where a flotilla of rubbish can occasionally be spotted drifting among private yachts.

Chan has taken matters into his own hands, arming himself with a bag and pair of scissors against the evergrowing behemoth. “No matter how much we complain, we are creating the problem,” he told HKFP.

According to the Environmental Protection Department, Hong Kong produces a large waste load when compared to similar cities. With over seven million people living in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, nearly 6,000 tonnes of solid waste were disposed of at landfills in 2016. 1.36 kilograms of domestic waste is generated daily per capita, compared to 1 kilogram in Taipei City and 0.77 kilograms in Tokyo.

Daily domestic waste generation rates
Daily domestic waste generation rates per capita compared. Photo: GovHK.

See also: ‘A miracle may happen’: Japanese environmentalist comes to Hong Kong to clean up our oceans

A diver since 1989, Chan told HKFP that he was spurred into action by the sight of cheap ghost nets tangled on reefs, which he said are discarded by fisherman and pose a safety hazard to marine life or swimmers who get tangled in them.

This humble undertaking has come at a cost. Chan said that most of his savings have been spent on cleanup operations, which requires renting boats and equipment for a team of volunteers who spend their weekends wading through waste left behind by fishing boats and junk boat partygoers.

But this hasn’t shaken his resolve: “I want to contribute back to Hong Kong society and inspire the younger generation to take action,” he said.

Aberdeen harbour trash
Aberdeen Harbour, October 2017. Photo: David Hopley via Facebook.

Chan is not alone. Several community action groups sprang up in response to an unprecedented amount of trash in Aberdeen Harbour in 2016, which Save Aberdeen Harbour Alliance said was among the most serious instances of marine debris on Hong Kong shores and beaches in memory.

Florence de Changy of the alliance told HKFP: “It was like an icebreaker sailing through trash. That would have been a scandal of international proportions.”

The first attempt to remove the waste was made that year at a Fish for Trash event, where the group said it took four to five hours to dispose of several tonnes of refuse. But despite multiple cleanups, the trash kept reappearing.

“The rubbish is very seasonal,” Tracey Read from NGO Plastic Free Seas told HKFP. “For a while, it seemed like we were winning the battle as there was a massive decrease in the amount of, in particular, the white polyfoam boxes from the fish market.”

These cheap polystyrene boxes are used to store goods at the Aberdeen Fish Market and often get carried off into the sea by the wind. And mixed waste from nearby boat repair yards is also said to spill into the water. In a further blow to environmental efforts, a video emerged earlier this month of a government worker throwing bags of trash into the harbour.

YouTube video

As another layer of refuse began to coat the surface of the water only a few months after the initial cleanup, it became clear that the trash was a symptom of a wider problem.

‘Getting the message through’

For local environmentalists, it can feel as though they are fighting a losing battle. “No matter how many times we clean up, it won’t help at all,” Chan told HKFP. “This is a mentality [issue] we’re tackling, the government needs to take serious notice.”

Aberdeen harbour trash
Aberdeen Harbour, August 2017. Photo: Lamma Gung via

Roz Keep from Living Lamma, a community group based on Lamma Island, also said that – at times – it seems as though nothing has changed since the launch of the Aberdeen Harbour campaign two years ago: “It’s like we never started,” she told HKFP.

She said that their main issue was a lack of public engagement: “There is a large sector of society that hasn’t yet understood the seriousness of marine and plastics in our local waters, let alone worldwide – and the sea is still the place where you can throw trash and it ‘goes away,’ which we all know is not true. However getting the message through to this sector of society in HK has been the biggest challenge for all of us.”

“We have failed completely in our efforts to move this sector and we are not making headway with this at all I feel.”

See also: Gov’t to install 20 water dispensers in Hong Kong country parks next year

But a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Department said that government measures are being taken to engage the public: “To promote the message of keeping the Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter clean, the Marine Department conducts monthly visits there and distributes leaflets to educate the public and encourage reporting of marine littering for their follow-up prosecution,” they told HKFP.

In 2017, the Marine Department – one of five bodies in a working group which enforces penalties for littering – recorded a total of 16 cases prosecuted cases for marine littering.

Public attitude problem

Although the government said that it has invested in eco-education, green groups say that little progress has been made with changing public attitudes towards water pollution.

Roz Keep said that the educational benefits of cleanups are indispensable: “Of course, it won’t clean up forever, and as soon as we have finished the trash comes right back – but education and awareness are key.”

Southern District Councillor Paul Zimmerman has been an active member of the cleanup community for the past two years and campaigned for better disposal of polystyrene boxes at the fish market. He said that public attitudes towards waste disposal are a major contributor to marine pollution: “The other items we find in the water are fast food containers, so lunch boxes and cup noodle containers. The source of that is extremely straight-forward, it’s the people that work on the vessels in Aberdeen Harbour, they finish their lunch, then chuck it,” he told HKFP.

Zimmerman added that the local fishing industry plays a part: “There are fisherman boat operators who have a very simple principle, which is to keep the boat clean. Fishermen come back into Aberdeen Harbour with fish, not waste, but they’ve been away on the water for three weeks. How can you have no waste? It is a poor attitude and a real problem. We don’t really have a solution to that problem yet.”

Paul Zimmerman
Paul Zimmerman. Photo: In-Media.

An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean globally every year due to littering. By 2025, the figure is expected to rise to 28 million tonnes unless action is taken.

A real solution?

The Marine Department has hired a cleaning contractor to deploy a scavenging fleet of eight vessels tasked with cleaning up floating refuse every day. These vessels scour the ocean and pick up trash en masse: “[We] coordinate regular, in-depth cleanup operations to deal with trapped refuse in hidden locations. The contractor also collects domestic refuse from vessels moored at the shelter twice daily,” they told HKFP.

But de Changy said that these boats are ineffective at moving the waste: “Most of it falls back into the sea,” she said.

Volunteers remove an unidentified floating object from Aberdeen Harbour. December 2016. Photo: The First Penguins.

Tracey Read from NGO Plastic Free Seas said that cleanup operations encourage others to take action: “We won’t fix this problem by cleaning up the mess, but it is a very useful tool for highlighting the problem and an opportunity to mobilise the stakeholders and push for real solutions,” she told HKFP.

De Changy suggests a bottle bill, where people can collect a monetary deposit for discarded bottles: “People would jump into the sea to collect plastic bottles,” she chuckled. “Then they would realise that plastic has value and it would give them an incentive. At the moment there is no incentive.”

Responding to a series of pictures taken last month of the floating refuse, the Marine Department told HKFP: “The floating refuse shown in the foreground, comprising mainly plastic bottles and food packaging materials, appears to have been littered in a recent time but not timely cleaned up.”

“[W]e have reviewed the situation and will take a series of focused actions to tackle this localized refuse problem, including enhancing cleanup operation at peak usage periods of landing steps…”

Aberdeen Harbour fish for trash
June 2017. Photo: Save Aberdeen Harbour Alliance via Facebook.

As Chan prepares for another dive this month, he remains hopeful about the future:”I’m not interested in politics or asking for sponsorship. I’m just happy to contribute to society and give thanks to the taxpayer,” he said, as a smile spread across his face.

Save Aberdeen Harbour will be holding a Fish for Trash event on July 29 2018.

jennifer creery

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.