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Ocean Intact

Ocean Intact

Growing up surrounded by the sea is something I feel truly blessed to have experienced. The fish, freedom, wilderness and beauty it offers draws me to the ocean, but it is not us surrounded by sea, it’s the sea surrounded, trapped, suffocated and slowly starved by us.

My name is Janek de Silva, I am a 17-year-old Sri Lankan student, and I have lived my entire life on our paradise island. This year I had an experience that gave me a clear purpose. During a family trip to Trincomalee beach in the northeast of Sri Lanka, I had to swim in a sea full of trash. It was low tide, and all the rubbish that was carelessly thrown along the coast and washed into the sea was washing back inwards. Countless plastic bags, straws and bottles were floating along the breaking waves and yet I did not see a single fish. That broke my heart, so I decided to do something about it.

During the summer, with the help of a few friends, I started a youth group called “Ocean Intact”, @oceanintact – Instagram, with a current membership of over 150 teens of Colombo, raising awareness about the issue of plastic pollution and microplastics in our oceans and how we as kids can do our bit to help reduce it.

With some highly enthusiastic friends I started running a stall at the weekly Good Market of Colombo, which we have currently run for 2 months, displaying and selling metal and bamboo straws, handmade ocean postcards, palm leaf plates, t-shirts and other reusable items that can be used instead of using plastic products on a daily basis. Through our weekly community engagement we educate people; that doing their bit to reduce using plastic is not difficult; it just requires a few changes to their daily routine. We played games and interacted with everyone who came by, asking questions and making friends!

In August we held our first beach clean-up at Wellawatte beach, securing the help of the local municipal council and close to 80 teens from Colombo. After a hard four hours of cleaning, we had managed to remove all the trash off 200 meters of beach, collecting close to 300 kg of plastic, metal, glass and nylon.

During the clean-up I paused for a break next to the local canal, flowing down from town and straight out to sea. As I watched plastic floating its way down from the houses I realized that most of the trash actually came from this 10 foot wide canal, where the masses, oblivious to the massive problem their drink bottle or straw would pose to their children in a few years happily discarded the used item into the canal, just like their father and grandfather before them. While educating the masses as to how they can change their habits is a slow process for a group of youth it is possible with some clever engineering to prevent that trash going into the sea. Thus, as an aspiring mechanical engineer, I designed a simple net, hinged and easily retrievable by the local sanitation worker, during my summer internship at SLINTEC, a nanotechnology institute. However, I am yet to build an initial prototype which I have to do while balancing a heavy Advanced Level workload. Ocean Intact is already promoting youth to use their talents to support the sea.

We are currently engaged in planning an island-wide plastic awareness art competition, running social media accounts, creating art, a platform for writers and talking to schools and cafes about becoming plastic free. Through creating different teams for the different events, I am teaching my friends to lead and to make an impact in their own way.

One of our issues is funding. Our initial funding came from our parents and we are continuing to rely on our parents for financial backing and our single corporate sponsor who funds our Good Market stall. While we are doing our best to manage with our available funds we could branch out, work with and support other projects related to reducing plastic usage, especially single-use plastic, as well as conducting more projects of our own. We are keen to run other projects such as coral restoration, visit other parts of our island to talk to local schools and gift cash prizes for our art contest.

We aim to see the ocean surrounding Sri Lanka set free from plastic. The current leaders of the youth group will train the younger members to take the lead roles as we go into university in 2019 thereby continuing the mission of the group. The ocean influences all of us, therefore we need to change as a society. I believe it starts with us, the youth, because in a few years we will have to address the issues by ourselves. If we don’t start changing our attitude now, very soon it will be too late.

Author Credit:Janek de Silva, Sri Lanka (Berkeley University)