Recently, we have been lucky enough to go exploring. First to Sanya, on the tropical Island of Hainan, located off the South coast of the China. Then, to a small town called El Nino in Palawan, Philippines. These islands, a little over 1000 km’s from each other, are both nestled in the South China sea. Even, though they share a lot of similarities, there are some very different attitudes about plastic pollution.
Sanya, Hainan Island
Hainan (海南省) is small by Chinese standards, only around 10 million people. However, more than 50 million tourists visit every year. Marketed as a tropical paradise, it is frequented by the rich and famous, mainly Chinese and Russian visitors.
We were invited to stay at a luxury resort town in Sanya, South of the Island. Sanya, a place of swimming pools, movie stars and private yachts. My wife was here to display her latest artwork but we were both invited to educate people about plastic pollution and the impact it is having on the oceans.
Unfortunately, we arrived late. Whilst we had a chance to marvel at the resort’s facilities, it wasn’t until the next day that we could head to the beach.
The private beach from the hotel looking out onto Yalong bay was beautiful. Also, amazingly, it looked spotless. Where was all the trash I had been told about in China? Isn’t China supposed to be drowning in trash? It wasn’t until the next morning that I realised what was going on.
Sunrise the next day, I decided to head down to the beach. Before the small army of cleaners had got started. It turns out that this small stretch of private beach (200m long) needs 10 full-time cleaners just to collect the trash that washes up every day. If a small private beach on a luxury Island gets so dirty I can only imagine the beaches on the mainland. I realised that the stories about pollution in China were, unfortunately, true.
During a few of our environmental classes, we discussed this issue with local guests. We wanted to understand their feelings about plastic pollution. We got some very mixed reactions. Some guests, realising for the first time the extent of this problem, showed compassion and regret. Others simply denied the problem even existed, even when presented with the evidence. However, no-one, not even the staff, understood the implications of plastic pollution. There was no comprehension that this is a problem we should even worry about.
China is by no means the only Country that fails to recognise the seriousness of plastic pollution. But as the most populated Country in the world, they also have the largest impact on the pollution of our oceans. If we are to make any progress at all with these serious issues then it is up to us to spread the word further afield. We need to help everyone understand the problem.
El Nido, Palawan
A few weeks later we had some downtime on Palawan Island. The Philippines has a reputation for having one of the top 3 most polluted coastlines in the world. Again, I was nervous. There is nothing I hate more than seeing polluted seas.
El Nido is a fishing village cum tourist town, built directly onto the sea front. As expected the shoreline was starting to look a bit dirty, which is to be expected with the number of people moving to this rapidly expanding town. What wasn’t expected was how clean the sea was just a short way out of town. On a small beach known as Nacpan beach, just North of El Nido, I swam in waters with 50+m visibility. It is incredible to me that places like this still exist so close to some of the most polluted waterways in the world.
The people of Palawan were different to what we saw in Hainan and Manila. There seemed a genuine respect for the natural environment. All around were signs encouraging sustainable practises and respect for the planet. The amount of trash was much less than I have seen in similar places such as Thailand. For me, this truly was a paradise, unspoilt.
Did I say unspoilt?
Sorry, not quite true. There was plenty of trash floating around. Some of it was getting washed up on the more remote beaches but a lot making its way into the fish food chain. I found it quite easy to pick up a bag or more of trash from almost every beach clean I did.
The unfortunate thing about plastic trash is, once generated, it doesn’t go away. This small town of El Nido is growing rapidly and is struggling to contain the waste it is generating. I worry about the future of El Nido. It breaks my heart to watch places with such beauty slowly sinking under the weight of its own prosperity.
However, maybe there is hope. You get the feeling on Palawan, that the people and politicians genuinely care about their Island and not just money. Let’s hope that greed and corruption do not ruin yet another paradise found!