Youth step up for the environment

Participants making observations about the mangrove on St. John's Island

Zero waste rice production in Brunei. Plastic pollution in Thailand. Fragile marine ecosystems in Vietnam. Mangrove rehabilitation in Myanmar. Food waste in Singapore.

These are some of the issues more than 90 youth from 12 countries across Asia are tackling this week at the STEP Environment Camp 2019 (SEC). Jointly organised by the NUS St. John’s Island National Marine Laboratory (SJINML) and Temasek Foundation, the camp aims to nurture and deepen the participants’ passion for the environment through lectures and workshops conducted by experts, doing fieldwork and working together to brainstorm solutions to problems relating to ‘Zero Waste’.


Dr Chan listening to Vietnamese students from the Phan Huy Chu High School in Hanoi talk about their case study on Vietnam's fragile marine ecosystems

In her opening address, Guest-of-Honour Dr Lena Chan, Senior Director for the National Parks Board’s International Biodiversity Conservation Division, emphasised the importance of working together to protect biodiversity.

Mentioning that 403 of the world’s more than 10,000 species of birds and 255 of the world’s over 800 hard coral species can be found in Singapore, she said, “On the one hand we are very proud that we still have these species, but on the other hand we must also be responsible for looking after them, and we can’t look after them on our own.”

Dr Chan added, “We need to depend on our neighbours because the birds, and the corals, and the fish, and the marine organisms don’t have passports. They will just go wherever they are, so it is very important for us to work together to make sure that we all play our part such that they can all move around quite easily.”


Assoc Prof Duong sharing how his research team creates aerogels from low-value waste materials such as plastic bottles

The participants also learnt about the impact of marine plastic debris on seafood, the role the circular economy can play in sustainable growth and about turning waste products into high value materials from experts such as Associate Professor Duong Hai Minh from NUS Mechanical Engineering.

Assoc Prof Duong spoke about his research team’s ground-breaking aerogels inventions. The team uses plastic bottles, textile, paper and rubber waste to make aerogels that are soft, flexible, durable, extremely light and easy to handle, with a wide range of applications. The low-value waste is converted into high-value aerogels through a simple, fast and cost-effective process that involves little to no toxic solvents.

His lecture inspired participants like NUS High School student Atul Teja Vellampalli. "At first, I wanted to become a researcher, who innovates and improves the lives of everyone around me. But it never occurred to me that research can be used to help the environment! And Dr Duong’s talk has completely changed my perceptions on this, making me realise that I can help both Man and Nature at the same time," he shared.

Workshops on field work, science communication and using statistical tools were also held for the participants.


Participants examining sand samples from the shores of St John's Island and Lazarus Island for the prevalence of microplastics

Aside from field visits to St. John’s Island, the Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve and Windsor Nature Park, the participants will also visit the NUS Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and the Sustainable Singapore Gallery later this week to learn more about Southeast Asia’s biodiversity heritage and how Singapore remains clean and green.

The Camp will close with a Youth for the Environment Symposium, where participants will present solutions to their chosen issues using what they have learnt throughout the week.

Previously called the STEP-NUS Sunburst Environment Programme for students aged 13 to 15 from ASEAN, China, India and Singapore, the programme rebranded this year as the STEP Environment Camp, catering to youths aged 17 to 19.