How to Clean Up Ocean Trash While Traveling (And Why You Should!)

Last Updated on March 6, 2023

Thailand: Pristine white beaches and crystal clear waters on secluded tropical islands. It is perfect image for a holiday relaxing in the sun. Right?

The reality is a far cry different in many places around the country, and in touristy beaches around the world. Thai beaches are not always as pristine as you may imagine. In fact, the more secluded the beach, the higher the likelihood that it will be covered in ocean trash.

Unfortunately, for Thailand—and much of Southeast Asia—ocean trash is a massive issue. Most recently, this was evidenced by a massive one kilometer long line of ocean trash.

beach cleanups in Thailand
What’s possible after a cleanup on Koh Lipe, Thailand.

The Ocean Trash Issue

I live in Bangkok, and the excessive use of plastic bags is one of the biggest problems I see every day. Everything comes in a bag. If you go to 7/11 and buy one bottle of water, they  instinctively put it in a bag, which you will use for about one minute. In fact, I’ve even been offered a bag-in-a-bag on multiple occasions.

Then there is the issue of people just throwing rubbish on the street, without giving a thought of where it goes next. Before, locals wrapped everything in banana leaves, which could biodegrade in the forests. Now, there is still this mentality of simply tossing trash—plastic bags, tooth brushes, toys, and more—into the streets, without thought of where it goes from there.

What happens to all this trash? In developing countries, which have particularly stressed and ineffective waste management systems, a storm comes, washes it down the drain, and it flows toward… yep, you guessed it, the ocean. Ocean trash then ends up on those beautiful beaches and in the stomach of marine life. The trash problem is so pervasive across developing countries that resort employees spend the dawn hours cleaning their beaches before tourists wake—this is common all over the region, from Thailand to Indonesia, the Philippines, and more.

The U.S., Australia, and other developed countries are to blame, too. The careless disposal of plastics is on a global scale. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced globally in the last six decades, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. A mere nine percent has been recycled, the rest sits in landfills or the oceans.

It would be nice for this issue to simply be solved at a high level—for policy and education to come along and change it all. But things don’t have to start there. They start with us, the people consuming the waste and contributing to sometimes unsustainable tourism industries.

ocean trash problem in Thailand.
Evidence of the massive ocean trash problem in Thailand.

Actions You Can Take to Solve the Issue

A single person can make a change.

I started carrying garbage bags in my backpack back in 2013. Since then, I have collected hundreds of kilograms of ocean trash, helping bring beaches in Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam back to their natural beauty.

While cleaning these beaches, I’ve met many other travelers and locals who are interested in what I am doing. Once I explain it—that it’s not that difficult!—many of those same people join me in cleaning up the beach. When we dedicate even just 30 minutes, it makes a significant difference over time, as more and more people address this issue.

Although cleaning up ocean trash is only a temporary fix—plastics continue flowing into the ocean at an astronomical rate—I’m out there fighting the fight for a cleaner world. Fighting to raise awareness, too, and help others see how their actions can make positive changes.

What should you do? When you travel, carry a few garbage bags. If you arrive at a beach covered in trash, don’t turn away and leave a bad review. Instead, pull out your garbage bag and spend just 30 minutes cleaning those shores—30 minutes to ensure that washed-up trash does not head back to sea. It is not the fault of the beach that it’s covered in ocean trash.

As you work, you’ll notice the beach quickly return to its former beauty. Even better, you will have this nice, clean beach all to yourself!

get involved cleaning up ocean trash
How to get involved in cleaning up ocean trash on your travels.

How to Clean Up Ocean Trash as You Travel

Cleaning ocean trash from the world’s beaches is increasingly the spotlight, so it’s easier than ever to join community-led efforts. In Thailand, voluntary events such as Adang Sea Diver’s Trash Hero on Koh Lipe make a contribution to the plastics issue in the Andaman Sea. Dive operators on Koh Tao, such as Crystal Dive and Eco Koh Tao, also run diving trips aimed at cleaning up the reef.

When you’re traveling, look for local volunteer cleaning organizations that can direct you to beaches in need of cleaning, local events, and also proper places where you can dispose of your collected trash to make sure it’s recycled, not simply dumped back into the ocean. Trash Hero has a large network (called chapters) of cleaning organizations around Asia—each one holds events and offers information on how you can make an impact locally. And the Ocean Conservancy also holds a database of worldwide coastal cleanups in need of volunteers.

If there are no cleaning organizations near where you’re traveling, take the challenge on yourself and start cleaning a beach. For a gamified approach, download apps like CleanSwell or Marine Debris Tracker. Once you start collecting beach trash, more often than not, other travelers will join you. Before you know it, you will have made your own beach cleanup crew!

Beach cleanups are a perfect traveler task because it’s an easy way to make a meaningful contribution of service to the areas you visit—it’s free, easy, and open to anyone keen to see our oceans survive for generations to come.

Have you cleaned up ocean trash while traveling? Share a comment below outlining where you helped out, and maybe even a photo, too!

Josh Shephard is an independent traveler blogging at The Lost Passport, where you will discover off-the-beaten track destinations and loads of awesome solo adventures.