From a distance, the scattered beaches of Vietnam’s iconic Ha Long Bay appear pristine. But as you get closer you realize that the picturesque World Heritage Site is engaged in a battle to prevent itself from drowning in trash.
Huge amounts of expanded polystyrene blight the bay, causing serious harm to the environment and damaging the impression that the otherwise beautiful cove makes on the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit every year.
Visitors to the bay, which is famous for its emerald waters and towering limestone islands, often report that the bay's natural beauty is being overwhelmed by trash and pollution.
“I was horrified by the degree of water pollution,” wrote a French tourist on TripAdvisor after a recent trip to the archipelago.
“Everywhere I looked there were plastic bottles, bags, sandals, chunks of polystyrene and all manner of trash,” she added, in a review that has become typical of tourist feedback on the bay.
Deteriorating water quality in the bay has been caused by fishing villages that float their homes using expanded polystyrene, which disintegrates, and the 500 or so tourist boats that discharge dirty water directly into the bay.
During a recent clean-up of several beaches organized by IUCN and Au Co Cruises, the 100 volunteers who participated found that expanded polystyrene was by far the biggest challenge, accounting for up to 50% of all trash collected.
“Expanded polystyrene is especially damaging to the environment because once it's broken down into small pieces it's almost impossible to collect by hand,” said Jake Brunner, Head of Indo-Burma for IUCN.
During the clean-up, despite filling several boats with mountains of expanded polystyrene, the volunteers still had to leave trash behind because there was so much. In some cases, there was no other option than to burn mounds of the foamy material, to prevent it from being washed back into the sea.
As part of the USAID-funded Ha Long-Ca Ba Alliance, regular clean-ups are planned for the future, as is addressing the root cause of the polystyrene plague.
IUCN will lead a campaign to have expanded polystyrene essentially banned from the area and replaced with non-polluting alternatives.
IUCN will also continue to recommend that the World Heritage Site boundary be extended to nearby Cat Ba Island, where much of the expanded polystyrene is thought to originate from.
It seems that the government is now getting serious about the problem. Speaking at the recent clean-up day, Ho Quang Huy, Vice Chairman of the People’s Committee of Ha Long City, issued a rousing call to action to the assembled volunteers.