On March 3, over 500 people in 15 locations around Malaysia took part beach clean-ups. But it wasn’t just to clear the scenic seasides of trash, it was also to collect data on the sheer scale of our marine debris problem.

Led by Reef Check Malaysia (RCM), participants included dive operators, resorts, community members, school kids, NGOs, government agencies, the private sector and tourists.

“Marine debris is a problem that is attracting attention around the world, as we realise that plastic is getting into the food chain,” said Julian Hyde, RCM general manager.

“So this effort was intended as a first step in raising awareness, to bring attention to the problem – and start to find real, practical solutions, rather than just keep repeating the clean-ups.”

The clean-ups were the first in a series of events that will celebrate International Year of the Reef 2018. Data collected will be analysed over the next weeks and published later in March.

Volunteers cleaning up the beach at Sibu Island, Johor.

But the preliminary data is ominous: volunteers collected over two tonnes of trash, including nearly 14,000 plastic bottles, 6,200 plastic bags and 1,700 straws.

On Pulau Tioman, it was the first time the entire island came together to show their support and participate in the beach clean-ups. The many different groups worked effortlessly and collected a huge amount of trash in just a few hours.

Alvin Chelliah, Programme Manager of RCM’s Tioman community programme said: “It was great to see dive operators, resorts, local community, government departments and NGO’s getting together for this effort. It was the first time clean-ups were done simultaneously in every village around Tioman.”

Some corporate partners lead their own teams to conduct clean-ups. Lim Jit Cheng from KPMG Malaysia, a long time supporter of RCM, said: “It is shocking to see how much trash you can find on a beach that looked pretty clean to start with.”

Monica Chin from Trash Hero Borneo, who led one of the clean-ups in Sabah, said, “It is very sad to see trash everywhere in our beautiful Borneo. Some people just don’t care at all. I strongly believe that if we put all our hands together, we can easily solve the problem of trash.”

“We are the ones who create trash, only we can reduce it, keep it under control and stop it for good. The key here is to care about our impacts to the environment! We clean, we educate, we change. Together we can make a difference!”

Hyde said that he had been surprised by the response, “It was amazing. We tried to keep this small because we had no budget, but it just kept growing as more people asked to join in.

Plastic is a big part of the problem, as seen from whats collected from the beach at Lankayan Island, Sabah.

“From four participants we ended up doing clean-ups at 16 locations. We have to say a huge thank you to all partners, who gave their time and effort for free.”

Locations in the clean-ups included the islands of Sibu (Johor), Tioman (Pahang), Perhentian (Terengganu), Pangkor Laut (Perak) plus four islands in Sabah, namely Gaya, Mantanani, Lankayan and Mabul. Clean-ups were also done on the mainland at Miri, Kota Kinabalu and Tanjong Jara, Terengganu.

The next step is to encourage all parties involved to get together and start looking for solutions.

Hyde said, “We need to meet with the relevant government departments, including the National Solid Waste Management Department. We need the big food and drink companies, as well as the industry body Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association.

He added, “We need to find technologies to deal with the plastic, economic incentives to make it more likely that people will recycle, we need better recycling logistics – the whole thing has to change.”