Site map | NSS Home Page
Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  Battling the Curse of Marine Litter
International Coastal Cleanup Singapore
The Curse of Marine Litter | Situation in Singapore mangroves | What the data tells us | Want to help?

What the data begins to tell us
Along with the 77 participating countries, we submitted country reports to the Ocean Conservancy, USA, a marine conservation group. With international data sets stretching back 14 years, they are able to make representation to the United Nations about the global problem, and to push for laws and enforcement against dumping trash in the ocean. In Singapore, the mangrove clean-up is a much smaller operation (400 versus more than 1,000 on beaches). It reflects the safety limit imposed on the tougher terrain and also, it is an attempt to protect the forest from our impact - better a gradual process to remove decades of litter, than a fast destructive approach. Even so, in just 90 minutes, some three tonnes of debris were removed, of which over 90% was plastic and foam plastic.

Quantity from
Quantity from
Cigarette butts
Pieces (foam plastic)
Bags, food bags/wrappers
Pieces (plastic)
Bottles, beverages, soda
Most numerous items collected during the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore 2001, by approximately 1200 participants in an average of less than two hours

The beach cleanup exercise is an older programme and many participating schools run their sites independently, submitting data to the coordinator at the end of the exercise. These shorelines are cleaned regularly, most of them daily.

So the data from beaches provide an indication of how much litter might be generated daily. More than 54,000 items of litter weighing more than 700kg were collected from less than 25% of our shoreline in a single day in 2001. Preliminary and conservative estimates pose a question: are almost eight million pieces of marine trash weighing more than 1,000 tonnes washing up on our shores each year?!

Figures like these would provide a better reflection of the problem in our country. Thus locally, we are building the data set up to better predict the estimated load in mangroves and provide reasonably accurate figures about annual recruitment on the seashores of Singapore. Besides providing data as feedback to government, the information will provide a resource to laymen, students and organisations to stimulate efforts that will lead to individual and societal change.

Are we really the source of the problem?

But isn't the problem coming from the sea? Interestingly, the combined data suggests that for Singapore, more than 60% of this trash is coming from shoreline activities.

Hence it will ultimately require the participation of the average Singaporean and begin with personal initiatives.

But why personal practices? Well, take a look at the top six items collected in 2001 - in less than two hours, mind you.

Getting trash out is hard work

Moving trash to collection point

Trash collection point

Debrief by Kate Thome
Topping the list again are cigarette butts, the top ranked item throughout the history of cleanup. Cigarettes are the most littered item in America and the world according to CigaretteLitter.Org. Since cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate and not cotton, they can take decades to degrade. Their high numbers on beaches and low numbers in mangroves point to shoreline activities as the source of these items.

As for hardy plastic straws, another regular feature in cleanup data, George Jacobs, one of our regulars, fails to understand why we still use straws to drink, after the age of four.

The data from bags and plastic pieces add to the compelling argument offered by saturated land fill areas on mainland Singapore - the fact that the only landfill we have is at Pulau Semakau, one of our southern islands, designed to last until 2030. Issues like reducing waste in packaging, or more simply, the use of plastic bags at supermarkets remain pertinent. Apparently, more than one million plastic bags are handed out each day in Singapore. Yet supermarkets are reluctant to impose a charge for plastic bags. Although these would save major supermarkets a few million dollars a year, the cost of irate customers is apparently not worth the effort. Hence efforts by the Singapore Environment Council received lukewarm response earlier this year (Kaur, 2002).

Perhaps, significant change will only be achieved when the situation becomes more serious. Both Asian and Western countries are taking action. In Ireland you pay for plastic bags, and the UK is examining this approach. Bangladesh has banned polythene bags for jute, boosting their ailing jute mill industry (Chazan, 2002). In Taiwan, mainly government establishments are banned from offering free plastic bags and eating utensils, and a campaign is dissuading people from using plastic bags and disposable plastic utensils (Chiu, 2002).

Obviously, significant effort still needs to be invested in educating the public. It is not a short haul job, as our own Ministry of the Environment can tell us. We must continue in our efforts in various ways, and remain hopeful that one day, the combined efforts of all, locally and internationally, will reduce the problem of trash to such an extent, that the International Coastal Cleanup effort becomes a vague but pleasant memory.

For information and photos:
If you would like to help in any capacity,
please email: N. Sivasothi at:

BARNES, D. K. A., 2002. Invasions by marine life on plastic debris. Nature, 416 (25 April 2002).
CHAZAN, D., 2002. A world drowning in litter. BBC News, 4 March 2002.
CHIU, Y. T., 2002. Confident EPA says public will warm up to plastic-bag ban. Taipei Times, 23 April 2002.
DHALIWAL, l., 2002. Bombay gets tough on plastic bags. BBC News, 14 May 2001.
KAUR, S., 2002. 1 million plastic bags change hands each day. The Straits Times, 3rd April 2002.
The Ocean Conservancy, 2002. 2001 International Coastal Cleanup - Singapore Summary Report. 11 pp

<<Back to Issue contents
© Nature Society Singapore