Litterbugs are a scourge on our well-being as well as our environment, with our disposal habits becoming a serious threat to our health. Team Y reports on why it’s crucial we start taking more care of our trash.
Beaches indulge us, but we are not returning the favour.
Whether we play sports on them with our friends, stroll at the water’s edge or simply soak up the sun, they are one of our main vehicles for relaxation.
But like everything that’s for free, we can take them for granted and even abuse them.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing. Oman’s beaches are becoming health hazards that will curtail our recreation, have a significant effect on wildlife and ultimately damage our well-being.
The Al Hail beach is one that offers visitors a contrast. On one hand, it is a leisure beach with an immaculate coastline that stretches for for miles alongside tranquil waters.
But on the other, only a few metres from its start and past the Al Mouj locale, the beach hides its darkest secret.
It’s one that has led to the slow and agonising death of several marine and aviary life – who suffer starvation and suffocation.
There have been fish washing up on the shore and birds dropping dead, and the problem has come to light as the beach becomes strewn with litter – and it is what we humans dump on the beach, daily.
It’s not an isolated situation. Some of Oman’s beaches – among other attractions, such as wadis, towns, historical and religious spots – have all quickly turned into makeshift dumps despite having bins provided by the Muscat Municipality and be’ah (Oman Environmental Service Holding Company S.A.O.C).
But, it’s here at the Al Hail beach where the problem is most apparent.
It’s here that expat Ammujam and an army of 20 volunteers toil away on weekends from before sunrise and into the midday heat for the betterment of the beach.
Yet, it has been five weeks of laborious cleaning – and they’re far from over, despite having had an excavator and bulldozer supplied by the Municipality.
But the group can hardly cover more than 200 metres per day. Cigarette butts, barbecue skewers sharp enough to penetrate skin and plastic bottle caps galore; there’s much that they find every morning.
What’s on the surface is only part of the picture – and this becomes clear when the bulldozer digs into sand. A light tug reveals our greatest fear: nylon fishing nets, plastic waste and used tyres.
Before we know it, the municipality machine has pulled up enough junk to fit a whole tipper truck with waste – all from a mere 100-metre radius.
It seems that the visitors and the fishermen heading to the Al Hail beach haven’t received the Municipality’s memo on littering, barbecuing, and even driving on the sands… and it’s not just putting the lives of animals and fish at risk but humans too.
As it turns out, fish caught in the Seeb and Al Hail area have been found to have traces of plastic in them, according to Muneer al Balushi, a fisherman operating out of this beach.
He knows full well that speaking out will affect his business but unabashed, he says (in Hindi): “I wouldn’t eat the fish I catch.
“It’s full of waste and plastic. Just last month, I remember catching a fish and while cutting it open to sell to the people, I found a piece of nylon in its sac.
“Since then, I’ve stopped eating fish and I’m now on the side of the beach cleaners. I will support this movement to clean Al Hail and Seeb beaches.”
Post clean-up, Ammujam raises this concern with us, as she shows us how these minute plastics can end up back in the ocean and eventually back into what we eat.
“It’s all a circle. What you throw today will somehow end up back on your plate.
“Smaller than a hair, these plastics can often go unnoticed – even by marine life.
“A lot of people tell me that they’re afraid of buying fish from the markets as they don’t know how much plastic is present in their stomachs. We’ve done enough to damage the environment and now it’s up to us to rebuild it.
“It’s ironic how these little things we leave behind are now coming back to haunt us,” she says, before picking up more nylon strands.
As per a study conducted by the United Nations in 2014, the global production of plastics stood at 311m tonnes, of which, an estimated 4.8 to 12.7m tonnes of plastic was discarded into the oceans.
Worryingly, it is believed that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than marine life. Currently, estimates put plastics in the sea at about 165m tonnes.
And much like plastics, nylon – a synthetic textile and a polymer – forms the core of the fishing industry as it is crucial in making fishing nets. These thin, fibrous materials break down into small fragments when exposed to the sun and will eventually be ingested by marine life.
But the material is not a contaminant by nature. It’s the carelessness of fishermen that leads to their nets being buried deep under the sand during strong winds.
In an interview with a Muscat Municipality official, who prefers to remain anonymous, we learn that littering has now progressed to being a nationwide crisis and has gone beyond the eyes of the governing bodies in areas outside the capital where tourists and visitors flock (i.e. wadis, beaches, villages, historical sites).
He says: “We’ve upset the balance of the ecosystem with our ill-manners. For someone visiting a wadi or beach, littering may only seem like a harmless violation. But, multiply it by the several thousand that visit these places daily – of which a few are violators – and you’ll begin to realise the extent of the problem.
“But littering is not the failure of the country but rather that of its people. It’s easy for one to blame the regulatory body when they don’t realise the extent to which the people have become accustomed to littering.
“For instance, we’ve implemented a new law that prohibits people from barbecuing in beaches across Oman. And we noticed the backlash we received from social media.
“Yet, we stuck by our beliefs and kept enforcing it. Today, if you’re caught barbecuing on the beaches, you’ll need to shell out RO100.
“But yes, we have a long way to go. People are still breaking the rules and it’s hard to keep an eye out for those violators that slip between the cracks.
“Still, we believe in a litter-free country and we’ll strive towards it,” he adds, before pointing out that offenders are currently asked to pay RO1,000 in fines for fly tipping. Fines are doubled for repeat offenders and offenders are given 24 hours to clean up the waste.
As optimistic as all that sounds, zoologist and professor at a leading university in Oman, Sultan al Raisi, raises a concern that’s never been talked before: a fall in migratory birds visiting the Sultanate due to loss of habitat from littering.
“The Sultanate is home to some of the rarest birds you’ll find in this part of the world. This is because it falls in a trail of birds that migrate starting from Siberia to Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Oman and finally India.
“The good news is that Oman still sees almost all species still visiting the country but the bad news is that there has been a sharp drop in the number of birds.
“Take seagulls for instance. We see these large birds seasonally – mostly during winters. We’ve noticed that the numbers visiting have reduced over the past four years or so.
Sultan explains how the consequences of this could range from a changing culture to more serious concerns such as climate change, as these birds avoid the long 5,000km journey to Oman.
“The birds don’t care about whether they’re visiting Oman, the UAE or Sri Lanka. All they care about is that they have an adequate supply of food and that the temperatures are higher than that of the other countries.
“While the latter does still stands true in Oman, there’s a very likely chance that – on a macro scale – these birds noticing either a change in their habitat or in their staple diet of fishes, which are undoubtedly being tainted with more microfibres and plastics.
“And what’s worrying is that if these trends continue, these large birds will be filled with plastic waste, which can cause severe health problems and fatigue during migration, and if the plastic is sharp, even punctures to internal organs can cause a painful death,” he adds, before stating that seabirds are drastically decreasing in number and that more than 48 per cent of all dead seabirds he tests in Oman have plastic in their guts.
His facts tie in with a report published by National Geographic in 2015 that stated that the seabird population had dropped 67 per cent between 1950 and 2010. And as believed, Sultan asserts that it is the added plastics in their diet that’s slowly taking this bird population down.
The evidence is all around, with carcasses of half-eaten seagulls lying on one corner of the beach. Devoured by cats to the bone for the most part, we come across one with its gut left aside – it has a blue plastic cap inside it.
We also see birds with plastics stuck to their beaks and nylon between their feet, which as per Muneer – the fisherman – is a common sight, and as per Sultan, the birds can’t be saved as they’re ‘difficult to trap and clean’.
Other victims of littering are turtles that mistake plastics for jellyfish and eat them.
But, these are only a few of the concerns arising from our excessive littering habits, and there are several others that tie in with not just the lives of aquatic and aviary life but also our health and well-being.
The effects are ostensive and its consequences far more apparent than ever before.
It could be from something as excruciatingly painful as stepping on a skewer or nonchalantly breathing in air laced with toxic vapours from plastics but one thing’s certain: it’s a case of ‘what goes around comes back around’ – at least according to Ammujam.
“One would think that the people would heed the rules of the land when there are fines involved but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Ammujam points out, as she picks up a plastic bottle from the beach that was discarded just minutes after they’ve cleaned the area.
Its culprit unknown, it’s clear that she’s frustrated as she explains how visitors disregard dumping their waste in bins set up simply because they’re placed a few metres away from the shore.
She’s right as we learn that green bins by be’ah mark much of the area surrounding the beach, offering visitors plenty of options to dump their waste.
She tells us: “I’m irritated by this behaviour – yes. But we’re not giving up.
“Plastics such as these are a great harm to humans just as much it is to the wildlife. The vapour it emits when heated is carcinogenic (cancer causing) and some of this can seep into the waters and eventually end up back in our systems through the food we eat,” she explains.
While statistics pertaining to cancer caused by plastics cannot be estimated, experts say that the chemicals that leech into your food or drinks can result in cancer over time.
According to health website Everyday Health, plastics such as polystyrene used in Styrofoam – an integral part of building boats in Oman – is known to pose ‘definite health concerns especially during high temperatures’ due to the addition of bisphenol A (BPA), a compound that has been strongly linked to cancer.
“Look around you,” says Ammujam. “Everything you see is a gift to us and to be a part of it is something we’re blessed with.
“So, why don’t we all take a step to regard it by simply heeding the law and keep our litter with ourselves until we can safely discard it,” she asks.
Ammujam and her team, with the help of the Muscat Municipality, is currently helping in the cleanup of beaches and educating the fishermen about safely stowing away nylon nets and other plastics away from the beaches – and the response has been favourable, she reports.
But even as the beaches slowly regain their sheen, there’s one part of the land that’s been left disregarded: the ancient graves of Oman that have been touted to be more than 2,000 years old and the wadis that surround them.
To understand the severity of the situation, we take a trip to the outskirts of Seeb and into the wadi, which has proudly laid host to graves that date back to the early years of life in Oman.
The sights are grim, though, as the clearly marked and segregated beehive tombs are peppered with waste from passersby and construction debris dumped by workers in the vicinity.
We raise this in a conversation with our source from the Muscat Municipality. Shocked by the images and the disrespect it causes to the departed souls, he says: “We always knew that littering existed in wadis and we’ve cleared up these areas before.
“However, as the Municipality, we need to be made aware of any incident of littering – especially in marked areas such as this that are of importance to our land and its people.
“What if the graveyard was one where your loved one rested?” he asks.
“It’s the duty of every citizen to share with us pictures of litter, and perhaps even help us by disposing of these wastes if possible. There’s no better way to set an example than by practising what you preach.
“If things are a bit out of your hand, though, call us on our hotline number – 1111 – and report the incident to the authorities. This needn’t just be in a graveyard or beach but anywhere in Oman,” he adds, before lauding the efforts of Ammujam.
The Indian-expat’s motto is simple and one to live by: “It doesn’t matter which country you’re from or which part of the world you’ll head to next. This is where we live now and it’s a place that has treated us with nothing but love and respect no matter what we throw at it.
“Why would you not expend a few seconds of your time to simply pick up waste – and those that you produced in the first place – and dump it where it belongs?
“Perhaps that’s where this negative act of littering belongs: in the trash.”