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“Perhaps because nature reminds me of God, I am drawn to protect it even more” – Gloria Chieng on tackling ocean plastic pollution with children’s book

Did you know that Malaysia is one of the largest ocean plastic polluters in the world?

We sat down with Gloria Chieng, nature-lover and avid scuba diver (she’s logged more than 100 dives!) to ask her a few questions on her latest project, a children’s book called Paco the Hermit Crab.

Gloria Chieng has always yearned to make a difference in all she does.

1. Could you share a little about yourself and how you discovered your love/passion for the ocean? 

I have been in the humanitarian industry for more than five years and am in between jobs at the moment. I studied Accounting for my Bachelor’s, worked as an accountant and absolutely hated it. I wanted to do something meaningful and make a difference in the lives of others. So I ended up doing my Masters in Development Studies and working in World Vision for 5+ years. And here I am now, attempting to put a storybook about a hermit crab in the hands of children everywhere.

I fell in love with the ocean when I first started snorkeling in Redang, Malaysia. The colours of the fish were mesmerising. When I was working in Australia, I decided to take up scuba diving as a hobby and that made me fall deeper in love with the ocean and its beautiful and unassuming marine life.

Gloria diving in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

My favourite are Nudibranches!! Especially the leaf slug! They are real life Pokemons! The colours of the underwater world are absolutely extraordinary and breathtaking – imagine the Avatar movie but in real life! Yes, it exists! Deep down in the Ocean!

Q: Why did you decide to write a children’s book and tackle the topic of plastic pollution? Why now?

When I left my job, I wanted to use my time to educate children about environmental sustainability. I reached out to a friend who runs an online educational platform for children – Plassroom. During the process of creating educational content for young children, I realised that the most effective way to get a message across to children is through creative storytelling. So my journey towards becoming a children’s book author began!  

Growing up, I never thought of writing stories for children. But throughout my diving history (I have been diving since 2013 and have clocked in 100+ dives) I remembered seeing lots of trash in the ocean (plastic bags, fish nets, diapers, school bags, clothes, etc) and at the beaches of popular tourist destinations. I felt sad, angry and disgusted and could only contribute by picking up the rubbish.

On Semporna Island in Sabah, I recall seeing people at the jetty throwing big bags of rubbish (presumably from their house) into the ocean! Like it was a garbage dump! I later learnt that there were no proper waste collection systems in the islands so that explained their behaviour. There have been beach cleanup initiatives since but it doesn’t stop the rubbish from piling up. So I thought it would be a good idea to start building good habits from young and that if we could inculcate in children a desire to protect sea creaturesm then perhaps the ocean may have a chance to thrive!

When it comes to tackling plastic pollution, I believe that early childhood education may be a more sustainable approach in the long-run.

Bags of plastic and trash collected from Mantanani Island, Sabah in 2021 by NGO Reef Check.

Climate change and environmental sustainability are part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. And while issues like plastic pollution and climate change carry more weight in the West, unfortunately it isn’t being talked about much in Asia. In Malaysia, we are still far behind in terms of adopting practices like living plastic-free, recycling and sustainable waste management. In fact, MBPJ rolled out recycling bins for the neighbourhood my parents live in just three years ago!

And let’s not even talk about Malaysia being a global plastic rubbish dump for decades. According to Visual Capitalist, MALAYSIA is currently the Top 3 ocean plastic polluters in the world, contributing approximately 73,098 tonnes of plastic waste emissions into the ocean. That’s at least two kg worth of plastic dumped into the ocean per person every year!

Q: Can you share your faith journey and why you believe caring for God’s creation is part of living faithfully?

I fell in love with Jesus when I was 12. I grew up as a typical city girl in KL and it was only in Australia that I developed a penchant for nature and outdoor activities. I absolutely love being in nature – be it deep in the forests, high in the mountains or in the depths of the oceans. (sometimes I feel like trees have so much wisdom! *channeling my inner Pocahontas) 

“Nature always reminds me of God our Creator,” says Gloria.

Nature always reminds me of God our Creator, there are so many times when I would feel His presence through the rustling of the winds in the forest and in the crashing waves of the ocean. There is always a sense of calmness and freedom being in the vast blue ocean. And the quietness. The only thing you could hear was your own breathing. I don’t think there is a specific defining moment where God spoke to me about Paco the Hermit Crab. God is always speaking to me through nature and perhaps it’s because I appreciate how it reminds me of God, I am drawn to protect it even more.

The Bible speaks of God as the Creator of the Earth. As Christians, we should be good stewards of everything that God has placed in our hands – this includes our environment and nature! When God created Adam, He didn’t just put Adam in the garden but He gave him authority and responsibility over the land and over all the animals. I am quite disappointed that churches today do not talk much about environmental stewardship. I hope my story will inspire believers to embrace their responsibility as stewards of the Earth.

Q: How did you come up with Paco the Hermit Crab? 

I was inspired after watching BBC Earth’s documentary on hermit crabs wearing rubbish and I thought that it would be a great way to introduce the concept of plastic pollution to children! After all, who doesn’t like a story about a cute hermit crab.

Paco the Hermit Crab teaches children about plastic pollution.

Q: How can we get more involved practically in caring for our oceans?

I believe it starts at home. Start by thinking about where your waste goes, being conscious about waste and consumption, reduce waste/plastic where possible, recycle and reuse items so they don’t end up in the landfill, dispose of trash responsibly, don’t leave them lying anywhere in the streets or on the beach. In fact, most of the rubbish in the ocean comes from rivers and some get carried by the wind from nearby towns/villages.

When visiting beaches, learn to respect nature by observing and not taking anything home. I’ve seen tourists pluck live corals as souvenirs while snorkelling and collect seashells to bring home. Paco the Hermit Crab shows children how this would be to the detriment of hermit crabs who rely on shells for protection.

Christians who are entrepreneurs or owners of businesses can start exploring ways to reduce plastic waste and practice sustainable waste management in their businesses and build a culture of environmental stewardship in their community.

Youth groups and churches can organise river and beach cleanups. Or even better, set up a recycling/waste collection at church buildings to make it easy and accessible for the community. That would encourage both believers and non-believers to bring in their electrical waste/recyclables and build a culture of sustainable waste management and consequently, a community of people who care for the environment.

It would also be a great idea for children to visit landfills or waste/recycling facilities in Malaysia as part of educational field trips beyond the classroom. Malaysia as a nation has a long way to go when it comes to being plastic-free.

Gloria has launched a Kickstarter to get Paco the Hermit Crab, a beautifully-illustrated children’s book by Lyn-Hui Ong, into the hands of children everywhere. Supporters in Malaysia enjoy FREE SHIPPING. To learn more about the book and support the project, click here.

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