Marine Debris– Time for Action and Collaboration to Make a Change
Growing up in Vungtau, one of the well-known beach cities in Vietnam, my childhood strongly aligned with the ocean. It was a clean and safe playground for me to explore the ocean world. In addition, the ocean is home to diverse types of fish which plays a role as the main source of income and source of nutritious foods in my community and family. Having said that, the ocean has held an important place in my identity.
As our country Vietnam is growing economically and socially, a large number of people can earn more money and afford a better life. This results in purchasing more things, which can significantly help to create more job opportunities and to boost the economy. However, in my observation, their purchasing usually associates with plastics, such as plastic grocery bags. Sadly though, after using it, many people just litter them in the public areas, including the ocean. This has caused the ocean, including the beaches in my hometown, to become more polluted. According to the Ocean Conservancy, Vietnam is listed among five countries which represent over half of land-based plastic-waste leakage to the ocean. When plastic trash leaks to the ocean, it poses dangers to many marine life, including the fish which mistakes the debris as their food. Consequently, they eat the trash which results in choking or suffocating to death. By 2050, plastic is anticipated to be greater than fish in weight (Neufeld, Stassen, Sheppard & Gilman, 2016, p. 29). People in Vietnam have become accustomed to littering and hold little awareness of the impacts it causes on the environment. This is one of the main reasons why the act of littering plastic trash prevails in Vietnam. It is challenging to address this global problem.
That being said, as one of the Asia-Pacific youth leaders on Education for Sustainable Development trained by UNESCO and the Earth Charter, I feel responsible for addressing this marine debris by initiating my own project in my hometown. The project is titled as Chạy Nhặt, which literally means running and picking up the trash along the ocean in Vietnamese. Although I started the project in February 2018, the project has so far received more than 100 Vietnamese and overseas participants, who are both local people and tourists. The project has focused on addressing SDG 3 – Good health and Well-being, SDG 5 – Gender Equality and SDG 14 – Life below water. I am highly aware that in many cultures, boys and girls are not allowed to play sports together. But in my project, we break down that barrier and make friends regardless their religion, nationality, sexual orientation, and race. In addition to hands-on experience, to ensure the sustainability of the project, I have hosted multiple discussions with over 250 elementary and high school students in my hometown. The project has also inspired other people, who are not living in my hometown, to clean up trash in the place where they live or visit, including inside and outside of Vietnam.
As of now, it is estimated that my project has collected over 100 kilograms (equivalent to over 200 pounds) of plastic
trash. I have to admit that it is still a long journey ahead to evaluate if the project is successful or sustainable. However, through the project, I can give back to my community and mother Ocean, who has given me way more than I contribute to. In addition, the project enables me to show my responsibility to the future generation, who deserves the right to access clean and safe beaches. Discussions with young individuals about this topic made me feel hopeful as they have demonstrated an interest in keeping our ocean clean by not littering. I also feel a bit of shame since they might have to solve the problem caused by our temporary generation. For this reason, I looked to facilitate the discussions in a way where participants should avoid feeling shame and instead take action.
Chạy Nhặt gave me the opportunity to become more empathetic towards those who still litter to the ocean. At some point, I feel very frustrated by the overwhelming amount of trash and this makes me ask many why-questions and somehow lose faith in humanity. However, I came to realize that instead of wasting my energy on negative thoughts, I should move on and inspire more like-minded people to take action and make a change. Some may criticize what my project is doing by saying that it is a waste of time and energy since this cannot address the root cause of the problem. That might be true from a perspective of an outsider; however, as an insider who is living in Vungtau and running along the beach every morning, I witness how much marine debris is scattered across the beach. This makes me feel the sufferings of mother ocean and see the potential threat to both contemporary and future generation. I dare to take action and clean up locations where I stand in front of mother Ocean. Do you think if the world stops using plastic, will the ocean be plastic-free as it used to?
As a matter of fact, plastic litter is one of the main threats our ocean faces today. It is not the problem of any single country, but of the entire world. Therefore, international cooperation matters. Addressing the marine debris is under the scope of not only the government, but corporations, schools, and individuals. I strongly believe that every single individual can be an agent of change in this global problem by simply keeping your environment clean, and by choosing re-useable alternative products such as a tote bag, bamboo straws, or reusable water bottles.
To end my reflection, I would like to refer to one of the well-known quotes from Mother Teresa, saying that “not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. This confirms my belief that I am not doing a “great thing” with my project but am showing my strong commitment, responsibility, and never-give-up-attitude towards a better future for mother Ocean, future generation and my community.
For further details of Chạy Nhặt project, please visit this Facebook page’s link https://www.facebook.com/runandpick. Through this reflection, I would also like to seek for collaboration and good initiatives to address marine debris. If you have experience or expertise in this field, please kindly be in touch with me by emailing me at [email protected]
This reflection is written by Phat Nguyen, a Vietnamese scholar of the Asian Peacebuilders Scholarship Program. He is a former Earth Charter Intern as a Youth Programme Facilitator for the online course on Leadership, Sustainability, and Ethics for 30 international youths. In addition, Phat was selected as one of youth leaders to the Asia-Pacific Workshop for Youth Leadership Training on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Bangkok, Thailand.
Conservancy, O. (2015). Stemming the tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean. Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, 48pp.
Neufeld, L., Stassen, F., Sheppard, R., & Gilman, T. (2016). The new plastics economy: rethinking the future of plastics. In World Economic Forum.