A blue ocean and white sand make for a picture-perfect vacation. But most vacationers don''t realize how much work goes into keeping plastic trash off the beach. This work is mostly done by volunteers, hordes of them who come from all quarters of society. It''s work supported by artificial intelligence, which can tell volunteers which beaches are the dirtiest. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how diligently they clean, the garbage keeps coming back, sometimes reappearing in a matter of days. Tonight in our Sunday special report, we drop in on the people tackling the Sisyphean task of beach cleanups, and we ask them, "Just where is this garbage coming from?"

A sun-soaked beach can be the perfect place to relax. But today, on this beach, it’s a picture of hard work and industry.

The wind is fierce, but that doesn’t stop these impassioned volunteers as they clean the beach. Armed with metal tongs and garbage bags, they work to clear the beach of all unwanted debris.

Restoring the beach’s natural beauty is their goal. With organizers ranging from NGOs and schools to big corporations, beach cleanups like this are an increasingly common sight.

The Environmental Protection Administration estimates that 200,000 people per year participate in beach cleanups in Taiwan. Even in 2020, during the pandemic, some 100,000 rolled up their sleeves to clean.

But despite their efforts, garbage seems to reappear just moments after it’s cleared away. You can’t help but ask. Where is all the garbage coming from?

This is a landfill in Hualien County. The large white area in the middle of the image is a garbage pile, and right next to the landfill is the sea. When a strong wind blows in, the garbage that’s exposed can blow straight to the beach or the ocean.

Chen Tzu-jung

Taiwan Environmental Information Association

Basically, the garbage we produce every day, as well as the garbage collected by these cleanup teams, all gets transported to the landfill. It gets piled up in the open air before being sent to the incinerator. During the time it’s piled up in the open, it’s possible there will be certain variables that will cause it to scatter into the wider environment. After it scatters, it may end up in the sea.

Bad weather can be a factor behind garbage on beaches. But the main factor is human activity.

Chen Tzu-jung

Taiwan Environmental Information Association

The United Nations has published data indicating that 80% of marine waste comes from the land. For example, there might be people barbecuing on the beach. Their waste gets blown away and they can’t be bothered to chase it down, or are unable to. Or perhaps somewhere on the land, near rivers or other waterways, things fall into the water and get flushed out to sea. The other 20% happens at sea, including activity near the coast. For example, whether intentional or not, things sometimes fall into the water from boats.

The source of marine waste is a complicated issue, and the question of where marine waste comes from has no clear-cut answer. Consequently, there is no way to fully eliminate the production of waste. For now, Taiwan can only rely on large groups of volunteers who continuously collect waste from its coastline.

In 2020 alone, volunteers collected 42,000 bottles, 41,000 bottle caps, 17,000 cigarette butts, over 10,000 straws and numerous plastic bags and utensils from Taiwan’s coastline. In total, roughly 31,319 kilograms of waste were collected.

A lot of work goes into these cleanups, even before they start. To choose a site, environmental groups have traditionally sent people to survey beaches, to determine which ones are most in need of a cleanup. But this approach takes time and saps resources. Last year, a new way emerged.

As it turns out, artificial intelligence can be applied to garbage removal. In 2020 the Industrial Technology Research Institute used the AIdea AI platform to process information from 121 test sites along 1,210 kilometers of Taiwan’s coast. The information was entered into AIdea, which built a model describing marine-waste patterns around Taiwan’s coast.

Hung Shu-shen

AIdea Artificial Intelligence Collaboration Platform

Using the precision of AI, we can make forecasts about marine waste, projecting when and where it will end up in large amounts. Armed with that information, we can organize a beach cleanup, and we will be more effective.

Conditions and parameters are entered into the platform, and for any given section of coast, the AI system can predict how much garbage will show up. The analysis is almost instant, and is about 80% accurate.

Hung Shu-shen

AIdea Artificial Intelligence Collaboration Platform

We can also use AI to analyze images and assess the amount of waste in the image.