Upcycling the Oceans: Thailand’s effort to rid sea of plastic waste

2018-05-18 08:00     Comment:0

Rising sea temperatures, overcrowding, pollution and tons of plastic rubbish are damaging the marine ecosystem to such an extent that authorities have no choice but to shut down their popular islands and dive sites to save the ocean.
While the Philippines abruptly closed down its idyllic Boracay island last month for a six-month clean-up, Thailand’s Maya Bay, made famous by “The Beach” film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will be off limits to tourists starting from next month to allow the island’s coral reels and sea life to recover.
According to US-based environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, some eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and based on research by Greenpeace’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, almost half of Thailand’s ocean waste is plastic, and according to media reports, Thailand is one of five countries in the world that are leading contributors to plastic waste pollution.
Last year, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) launched its “Upcycling the Oceans, Thailand” (UTO) initiative with PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) and the Ecoalf Foundation, marking Thailand the first country in Asia to be part of the global ocean clean-up effort.
Initiated and implemented by Ecoalf Foundation, the UTO project began in Spain three years ago aimed at fixing the problem of marine debris by recycling plastic waste from the ocean and turning it into fibres to produce sustainable fashion items, and as a result, to reduce waste and add value to marine debris, through a three-year commitment.
UTO Thailand was officially launched last year at Koh Samet, Rayong province, where about 300 divers and volunteers joined and collected over 600 kilogrammes of undersea and beach rubbish in four hours.
Dive and Save
To raise public awareness of responsible tourism, the Tourism Authority of Thailand Hong Kong Office recently invited Hong Kong and Macau media to Rayong, an eastern province on the Gulf of Thailand, for a two-night live-aboard experience organised by the Rayong Dive Centre especially for the UTO programme that takes divers to Koh Chang’s shipwreck, Koh Rang, and Alhambra Rock (Hin Phloeng) dive sites where they can enjoy diving and pick up rubbish to help save the ocean. The flights of the trip were sponsored by Hong Kong Airlines.
TAT Hong Kong Office Director Sarima Chindamat told the media group in Bangkok last week that the UTO project was one of the measures to help sustainable tourism.
“We have to look to the future. This is about getting the stakeholders in the tourism industry to take responsibility, and not just enjoy themselves and ignore [the problems],” Sarima said, adding that the project was also about letting the public learn about the value of natural resources.
Sarima pointed out that besides sun, sea and sand, Thailand also has many beautiful dive sites waiting for tourists to explore, adding that sustainable tourism is key to giving back to nature and ensuring a positive experience for locals and tourists.
Phuket has recently joined the UTO project, which, Sarima said, would continue to cover more islands around Thailand.
Getting worse
According to Rayong Dive Centre owner and dive instructor Phiraphat Boonpetch, who is known to many simply as “Khru (“teacher”) Aoun”, the ocean environment has drastically changed over the past decade.
Khru Aoun, who has been diving for two decades, said that 15 years ago, the sandy bottom of the sea was always white but now it has become brown.
“We need people to help the ocean, our ocean is only getting worse and we need to help it so that it can live longer,” Kro Aoun said.
According to Khru Aoun, the centre’s two-night two-day UTO live-aboard trip that includes six dives priced at 13,500 baht 3,390 patacas, is almost fully booked from October this year to May next year.
Tourists or divers will be given a UTO “diving passport” where they collect stamps from picking up rubbish during their fun dive, and in return, they get discounts of up to 20 percent on their next dive.
One of the divers at the live-aboard trip with the media group, Wang Jiaqi, who is from Jiangsu province but is based in Bangkok for his jewellery business, said that he took up diving as water activities are so popular in Thailand, and has been a dive master for almost three years now, going diving every fortnight. He chose Rayong because it’s just a three-hour drive from Bangkok, making it the closest dive site from the capital, and because Rayong Dive Center was more family-oriented than others.
Wang said that barracuda, yellowtail, sea urchins, coral reefs and even whale sharks could usually be seen at the dive sites featured in the live-aboard trip.
Although not much rubbish could be seen at the dive sites last week, Wang said that in a similar ocean clean-up drive he joined some three years ago in Koh Chang (“Elephant Island”), 30 divers managed to collect 200 kilogrammes of rubbish, which included a tyre in which an eel had been trapped inside.
“Patong beach was the most littered. In the sea, it’s mostly fisheries waste, such as fishing nets covering and damaging the corals,” Wang said.
During the dive at Alhambra Rock, the media group saw schools of fish trapped in a fishing cage dumped on the seabed.
Narinratana Kongjandtre, nicknamed “Nong”, specialises in marine biology at Burapha University in Chon Buri. She was one of the divers at the live-aboard trip last week and was collecting coral specimens for her research on how long the symbiotic algae, or zooxanthellae, living on the corals’ tissues can survive after a bleaching event.
According to Wikipedia, corals depend on a symbiotic relationship with algae-like zooxanthellae that live within their tissues and provide them with up to 90 percent of their energy.
In negative environmental conditions, the corals survive by expelling zooxanthellae, which leads to a lighter or completely white appearance, hence the term “coral bleaching”, which is usually caused by warm sea temperatures.
But whether it’s plastic waste or climate change, the damage to the oceans is happening and action is needed to save it before it’s too late.

“Natural resources belong to everyone, this is our idea of getting our tourists involved, not just enjoying diving, but also participating in preserving the environment,” Sarima said.

A diver is seen near coral reefs in one of the dive sites for the “Upcycling the Oceans (UTO) Thailand” live-aboard programme in Rayong province, last week. Photo: ParadiseDiverHK – Jason Cheung

Litter can be seen on the beach at Klaeng district in Rayong province last week. Photos: Monica Leong

This photo taken and provided by dive master Wang Jiaqi shows a plastic bottle (centre, bottom) at the Chang Wreck dive site last week.

Wang Jiaqi, who is from Jiangsu province but based in Bangkok, prepares for his dive last week.

Rayong Dive Center owner and dive instructor Phiraphat Boonpetch, or “khru Aoun”, briefs divers about the Chang Wreck prior to their dive last week.

Narinratana Kongjandtre, or “Nong”, arranges the specimen collected from the corals for her research in marine biology.

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