These S’poreans removed over 1,800kg of trash from our waters

Aghast at what they saw, clean-up organisers mobilise volunteers to remove litter from the sea, beaches and mangroves

The trash that non-profit organisation Our Singapore Reefs and its volunteers retrieve from our waters include single-use plastics and styrofoam boxes. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH


Plastic bags, styrofoam boxes, rubber tyres and even washing machines – these are just some of the items that clean-up organisers N Sivasothi, Sam Shu Qin and Toh Tai Chong have collected and thrown away from our beaches, waters and mangroves. For years, the three have been at the frontlines of Singapore’s battle against marine trash. With the world’s oceans awash in trash that damages ecosystems and harms humans both directly and indirectly, their efforts are helping to stem and, in some areas, even turn the tide on the waste.


Mr Sivasothi, 55, a National University of Singapore (NUS) biology lecturer, started to lead groups to cleanse the mangroves 26 years ago as part of the International Coastal Clean-up Singapore (ICCS) group. He became its main coordinator in 2001.

NUS lecturer N Sivasothi has run coastal clean-ups for two decades and plans to resume the annual activity in 2023. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

ICCS runs the largest annual coastal clean-up in Singapore, with an average of 3,500 participants. In 2019, over 2,200 volunteers collected nearly 7,700 kg of trash, before the event was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. ICCS is promoting small year-round clean-ups for the near future until the situation improves.

Trash talk

The amount of marine litter collected by volunteers and different organisations (in tonnes) from Singapore beaches in 2021 

Source: National Action Strategy on Marine Litter

Mr Sivasothi shares: “We have eliminated the historical load of rubbish at many of our mangroves, and they are starting to recover and breathe again. This shows that if you do regular clean-ups, you can make a difference in some places.”

On the other hand, Dr Toh, 37, and Ms Sam, 33, founded the non-profit organisation Our Singapore Reefs (OSR) in 2017. The duo, who are researchers at the Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI), has conducted over 40 dives in Singapore’s waters, removing over 1,800 kg of rubbish to protect coral reefs, turtles, fish and other aquatic life.

Dr Toh Tai Chong and Ms Sam Shu Qin are co-founders of Our Singapore Reefs, which aims to promote awareness about the country’s marine biodiversity. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

A champion for coastal clean-ups

Mr Sivasothi’s long clean-up journey began with a request. In 1992, Nature Society Singapore (NSS) member Kate Thome created the local edition of the International Coastal Clean-up event, which is carried out in over 150 countries each year.

The event aims to remove litter from shorelines, waterways and beaches, collect data on the debris, raise awareness of marine pollution and persuade governments to take action to improve aquatic environments.

ICCS works with different parties to organise activities such as this mangrove clean-up at Sungei Pandan in 2015. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NUS TODDYCATS

After five years, Ms Thome set her sights on Singapore’s trash-laden mangroves. These coastal forests not only serve as a habitat for many species, but absorb large amounts of greenhouse gases, slowing climate change.

“She hunted me down, as I had worked in the mangroves, mapping them and searching for animals,” recalls Mr Sivasothi.

He agreed to oversee ICCS’s mangrove clean-ups, starting in Mandai Kechil in 1997 with 24 former and current NUS biology students and NSS members.

“There was so much accumulated trash, preventing the mangroves from growing. We focused on six areas about 100 sq m each, and it was hard work getting the trash out.”

By the time he took over ICCS’s coordination in 2001, with a larger team and more target areas, including in other mangroves, he ran the clean-up like a military operation.

There were activities such as site trips to plan routes and safety evacuations and training for volunteer guides. Once, a volunteer’s flat-bottomed boat and sea scouts on canoes – with the support of the National Parks Board (NParks) – were activated to ferry trash out of the mangroves.

During ICCS clean-ups, volunteers classify, count and weigh the collected trash, filling out data cards, before the National Environment Agency (NEA) disposes of it.

Their organisers submit their data totals to the ICCS team, which verifies and consolidates the national totals. The team then shares the national data with the NEA, and posts it on the ICCS website for all to use.

Journalists and scientists have relied on ICCS’s data to highlight issues, and the Singapore Government has tapped on it too, including for its recent National Action Strategy on Marine Litter.

Mr Sivasothi has also given talks and run workshops for firms and organisations, on Singapore’s marine life, pollution’s impact on it, and how they can help.

With mangrove clean-ups suspended temporarily, Mr Sivasothi has moved on to habitat enhancement such as planting trees on suitable sites like this plot in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

The fight against marine pollution has come a long way, he says. Many firms, organisations and communities now arrange their own clean-ups.

“There’s momentum for upstream solutions, such as repurposing plastic and repairing devices to generate less waste,” he adds.

Even when Singapore limited group sizes during the pandemic, thousands of people formed small teams to pick up trash from beaches.

Mr Sivasothi notes: “Coastal clean-ups have become an even more mainstream movement.”

Diving to remove debris

For Ms Sam and Dr Toh, finding a washing machine in Singapore’s waters was the last straw.

As researchers at TSMI, their work includes restoring corals, by growing them in the laboratory, transplanting them into the sea, and periodically checking on their health.

Ms Sam shares: “We often see trash damaging the corals, such as plastic bags covering them and preventing them from getting sunlight, fishing cages crushing them, and other rubbish harming their integrity. But when I saw a washing machine during one of our dives, I told Tai Chong, this is too much. We must do something.”

Ms Sam sorts out the marine trash collected from a dive in April this year. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/BENNY LOH

After they set up OSR in May 2017, they spent a few months working out the protocol for diving trips to remove trash from the sea, taking pointers from NParks’ guides for dive trails.

“Singapore’s waters can be quite murky, so we have one dive guide for every two to three divers,” explains Dr Toh.

Finding volunteers was a cinch as they have many friends who are experienced divers and are passionate about protecting the environment. But they needed help with funding for the boat trips to take them out to sea.

NParks and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore provided support, and OSR started to provide educational sessions on Singapore’s marine life and conservation, as well as publicity videos and photographs, to organisations in return for boat trips – making it a win-win situation.

During the pandemic, OSR had ad hoc dives with fewer volunteers – in line with group size limitations – and focused more on outreach efforts.

Besides speaking to schools and companies about aquatic issues, the co-founders partnered a beachside seafood restaurant last year to host monthly talks, with young marine scientists and conservation experts sharing their research and work.

On a clean-up dive on World Oceans Day 2022, the volunteers from Our Singapore Reefs even found a mini bolster in the waters. PHOTO: OUR SINGAPORE REEFS

“We’ve had young families and people who didn’t know much about the issues saying how much they enjoyed the talks, and volunteering for clean-up events,” says Ms Sam.

The co-founders have organised film screenings on marine conservation and curated an exhibition on the subject in Sentosa. They have even guest lectured for the International SeaKeepers Society’s Floating Classroom initiative, which brings students to marinas and on boats to learn about marine life.

While OSR resumed its regular clean-ups in April this year, it will continue its advocacy.

It contributed to the National Action Strategy on Marine Litter, and submits its trash data to the Dive Against Debris website, a citizen science programme funded by the PADI AWARE Foundation which works on conserving oceans.

Ms Sam explains: “You cannot pick up rubbish and let that be the end point. We want to inspire and mentor younger generations to push for sustainability, to create lasting change for our oceans and seas.”

We The Earth is a partnership between The Straits Times and Rolex and its Perpetual Planet initiative. Clean-up organisers N Sivasothi, Toh Tai Chong and Sam Shu Qin are stellar examples of the many individuals who are doing their part to solve the issues earth faces.

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