Walking on the streets, it’s common to spot people fiddling with or tapping away on their smartphones, heads down.
Smartphones, with their social media applications, games, high-quality cameras and other functions, are increasingly permeating our social interactions. Smartphone addiction, the disease that is turning young people all over the world into “intellectually-detached zombies” who constantly bow their heads staring emptily at their shiny devices, is also a common sight in Singapore.
On Sunday, 15 July, the Singapore Tzu Chi collegiate youth spent the entire morning with their heads bowed too, but they were not staring into one single spot. Instead, all 18 of them, together with 15 Tzu Ching seniors and Tzu Ching mentors, were picking up litters along a local beach.
Styrofoam – human’s long-lived “companion”
Dubbed the Garden City, Singapore is well known for her clean and orderly streetscape. Away from the town centre and heading east towards the Changi Beach, at first glimpse the beach do look perfectly clean and free of littering. However, upon closer scrutiny in the shrubs and along the beach, one will find traces of trash.
“Look at these Styrofoam bits!” exclaimed one of the Tzu Chings during the cleaning exercise. The team was surprised by the amount of Styrofoam bits spotted among the shrubs.
Exposed to weathering such as sunlight and rain, Styrofoam will gradually break down into bits that are smaller than finger nails. It takes plenty of effort and good eyesight to spot these environmentally-damaging bits and picking them up.
So exactly how environmentally-unfriendly is Styrofoam?
Styrofoam is actually expanded plastic foam (EPS), specifically an expanded version of the Number 6 Plastic Polystyrene, used for many different functions involved with insulation. It is created from a number of dangerous chemicals such as benzene and styrene.
Benzene, a very toxic chemical labelled as a carcinogen, is extracted from coal. Extracting coal from mines is very damaging to the environment and contributes to land erosion. Besides the dangers of producing EPS, Styrofoam takes hundreds of years to decompose naturally. There are few known methods of breaking it down quickly.
Because expanded plastic foam is an end product, it cannot be recycled into different products, only reincarnated as itself. This limits recycling options since the process of melting EPS into a liquid state and then reforming it is too labour-intensive and toxic for recycling companies to handle. Most recycling companies do not accept EPS because they do not have the technology available to reprocess it, so people just throw it away with their trash.
“The general public gladly accepts the convenience brought about by Styrofoam products but they are not aware that it comes with a hefty price – the damages it brings to the environment and various life forms,” shared Cheng Shau Chuan from the National University of Singapore.
“Everyone should really reduce their use of disposable containers and products, by doing so, we will be able to reduce the amount of rubbish created everyday,” shared Yang Ying Ying from Xiamen, China. Ying Ying knew Tzu Chi since young and has volunteered in Xiamen’s Tzu Chi relief mission during her secondary school days. She is no stranger to Tzu Chi’s commitment to environmental protection. Upon coming to Singapore to further her studies, she looked up Tzu Chi and began helping out in Tzu Ching’s events. She hopes that by helping out in the beach cleaning, “beach-goers could have a clean and safe beach to enjoy seaside scenery.”
Jackson Yang, the leader of the Tzu Ching Environmental Protection Group, is also an avid diver. While cleaning the beach, he shared his underwater sightseeing experience and the abundance of marine life he saw with the fellow Tzu Chings. “Ocean is the mother of all life forms. If we keep disposing rubbish into the ocean, we will risk endangering the entire marine system,” he noted.
Carrying bags full of non-recyclable garbage picked up along the beach, he went on, “You can see that not all trash on the beach is recyclable, so the best is to tackle it at its source, and the way to go is to avoid unnecessary consumption.” Jackson admitted that the beach cleaning activity has strengthened his determination to spread the negative impact of Styrofoam products.
Consume less, start from the source
Under the gentle sea breezes, waves after waves of seawater broke on the sandy shore. Under the blazing sun, the Tzu Chings continued to bend their backs and pick up trash along the coastline. Their hard works were translated into patches of dried sweat spots all over their uniform.
Pan Chaozhi, who is currently a second year PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), had joined another beach cleaning activity organized by the campus’s environmental protection group Earthlink earlier.
Speaking of the difference between the two activities, Chaozi said, “Earthlink’s cleaning event was done in a mangrove along the west coast and we came across items such as car tyres, petrol cans, etc. Here at Changi Beach we’re seeing more household items such as Styrofoam, plastic, cigarette butts, etc.“
Chaozi noted that the beach is a popular hangout place for many. Some came to beach to have barbeque, some set up tent and stayed overnight while some came for friend gathering. However, when they were done and left the beach, they left not only footprints but also trash.
Chaozi shared that he tries not to use disposable plastic carriers while shopping for groceries. But if he had to, he will have his items placed in one single bag instead of many. “I saw many shoppers carrying their groceries in many plastic bags. It’s actually a waste of resources as what we are shopping for are the groceries, not the plastic bags. The use of shopping bags should be encouraged as we can use it over and over again.”
After the beach cleaning, the Tzu Chings gathered the trash they picked up and sorted them into recyclable and non-recyclable items.
Addressing the participants, Liew Zing Quan, one of the beach cleaning event coordinators, said, “The Ocean has no boundaries. Hence, littering at any corner of the world may be carried by the ocean current to other parts of the world, possibly back to our own country someday! The impact is enormous.” He hopes that everyone will value their own action to protect the environment.
“Beach cleaning is just one exercise to raise environmental awareness. Other than our government putting in effort to care for the environment, we the people should shoulder the responsibility too. We should practice recycling and sort out items that are reusable in order to extend their lifespan. The ultimate way to conserve our environment is to reduce consumption and differentiate between what we need and what we want,” added Zing Quan.
Walking the talk
During the beach cleaning, a member of the public named Mr Chua chanced upon the group and went forward to cheer on their effort. Being a frequent beach goer to practice Qi-gong, Mr Chua always does his best to pick up litter along the beach. “Though there are contract cleaners to do the work, the core of this trash problem lies in the public’s habit of littering,” commented the Pasir Ris resident
Mr Chua, who lives close to our Jing Si Hall at Elias Road, always invites his neighbours to participate in our monthly recycling activity at Block 605, urging them to bring their recyclable items to the recycling point and help with the sorting work. He believes that environmental awareness must be instilled from young and encouraged the Tzu Chings to recruit more youths to join in the movement.
“How did those hazardous used batteries end up on the beach?” A Tzu Ching asked during the group sharing. “Perhaps they were disposed after they died out in the torch lights,” replied another Tzu Ching.
“Can used batteries be recycled then?” The discussion went on.
A Tzu Ching gave an affirmative answer, adding, “But you have to be extremely cautious while recycling used batteries so that the chemicals contained inside do not leak. Once leaked, the toxic chemicals will cause irreversible damages to the soil and make it infertile for a prolonged period.”
After the beach cleaning exercise, the participants took a bicycle ride to Pasir Ris Park. They were greeted with natural scenery along the one-hour ride. It was an alternative way to appreciate the beauty of tropical Singapore through cycling – a carbon-neutral mode of transportation which is good for both the body and the environment.
On this day of 20th anniversary of the Tzu Chi Collegiate Youth Association, the global Tzu Ching environmental relay started in Taiwan and was followed closely by nearly 10,000 youths over 13 countries. The relay took on diverse forms such as beach cleaning, street cleaning, recycling sorting, etc. in the various countries. Though different in manifestation, these events shared the same goal, which is to show concern to the environment by walking the talk. It is hoped that Tzu Chings all over the world could bring about a new wave of environmental awareness to the younger generation who are going to inherit the planet from us.