I followed OBS instructors on a coastal cleanup
There’s much more to it than just picking up rubbish.
The sun was low in the sky, the sandflies were buzzing, and I was constantly stopping myself from wiping my sweaty face with dirty gloves that had been holding trash just moments before.
It was a tiring day spent at Pulau Ubin, but I definitely felt fulfilled.
I had followed a group of Outward Bound Singapore instructors to the island on Sep 20. It was a week of workshops designed for them to learn more about nature and, as such, become better equipped to teach students during programmes.
Two trainers from Nature Society Singapore (NSS) taught us about marine debris, defined as manmade materials that end up in the ocean, and how much of it there is, the various ways it ends up in our waters, and the habitats it affects.
They also taught us about microplastics— defined as pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm. For example, when you wash polyester and spandex clothing, plastic fibres from the fabric drain into the ocean. Some of the small particles in exfoliants and toothpastes are made of plastic and pollute our waters as well.
The trainers talked about how all this rubbish had built up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of rubbish floating in the ocean three times the size of France. When I heard about it, the sheer scale of how much trash was in our waters hit me.
“Even if you clean the beach, the trash will be back in 24 hours,” one trainer shared. “OBS can’t settle the root cause, so you must teach the next generation to care and plant that seed.”
We were split into teams of five and given forms to fill out about the types and amount of rubbish we picked up, so that the data could be sent to International Coastal Cleanup Singapore.
After the briefing, we went out to the beachfront to collect rubbish that had washed up on shore. I was apprehensive at first, because it’s been years since I’ve participated in a beach cleanup, but once we got to work I found myself having a blast.
Despite the beachfront being small and secluded, there was still a surprising amount of trash. I found myself constantly picking up plastic food wrappers and styrofoam. One team even dragged up half an office chair that had washed up on shore. We debated picking up some glass bottles, but we left behind the ones with animals living inside.
“A flimsy plastic bag can never be a home,” one trainer had shared, “but if it looks like part of the habitat, leave it alone.”
At the end of the cleanup I counted fourteen bags of rubbish on shore, weighing 139.5kg. The number was staggering to me considering we had only been on the beach for an hour, and there were only twenty of us.
As we headed back, some instructors started a discussion about the kinds of bins OBS placed around Pulau Ubin and how its design can be improved so that storms and wild animals would not be able to knock them over.
It struck me that even while tired and sweaty, the instructors were actively trying to brainstorm ways to improve their surroundings.
At the end of the night, everyone sat down to cross-share about what we had learned, what stuck with us, and how to apply this knowledge when conducting lessons.
“If each person picks up 1kg of trash a day, that’s not a lot. But if there’s new trash every day and you pick it up, then you’ve cleaned 365kg of trash in a year.” one instructor shared.
“We have to encourage the students that what they do makes a difference, no matter how small it is.”
Another instructor mentioned teaching students how to form lasting habits. “You’d rather do a bit a day than rush it all on Sunday,” he joked, comparing picking up rubbish to homework.
“Depending on the attitude of the kids, we change our approach”, a trainer stated. “That way we’re maximising the impact of the lesson we’re trying to teach.”