JEJU, South Korea, Feb. 28 (Yonhap) -- On Korea's southern resort island of Jeju, it is not unusual to see costume-clad characters, whether working at theme parks or passing out advertising. But a fictional superhero that is the brainchild of a Canadian teacher on the island is using his character to tackle a serious problem.
Troy MacLellan first came to Jeju to teach in January 2007, having chosen to live somewhere similar to his childhood village of Chance Harbour, near Saint John, New Brunswick. Six years later, he is still here, having married a local woman in 2009 and with no plans to leave for at least another 10 years. He is also the alter ego of "Captain Clean," a grime-fighting superhero whose "Green Machine" helpers seek to clean an area famed for its beauty.
MacLellan did some online research before moving to Korea, and favored either Jeju or Mt. Seorak in Gangwon Province near the peninsula's east coast.
"I didn't want to live in Seoul or Busan or one of the big cities," he says. "I wanted to live somewhere there were lots of trees and lots of beaches and lots of water, and it was either Jeju or Mt. Seorak." He chose Jeju, and he is glad he did.
"I saw lots of pictures and it was touted as the Hawaii of Asia," he says. He found one unpleasant surprise, however, on an island famed worldwide for its natural beauty and unique geographic features.
"I didn't expect all the garbage," MacLellan says. "I did read online, and this was the government that was saying this and some of the public blogs, that it was a very clean place, that it was the cleanest place in Asia and they were very proud of that."
The reality, he found, was garbage everywhere -- washed up on the coastline, discarded in riverbeds and on hiking trails, burnt beside farms and beaches or left behind by fishermen on the rocks or picnickers in parks and tourist spots.
"I can't think of a spot where I haven't found garbage," he says. "I got here in January so it was a while before the beach season and when the beach season started, the beaches were pristine. But then I realized that the ajummas and the ajeossis do that every day, that they clean it every day and every day they get bags of garbage," he says, referring to the mostly elderly groups of women and men that clean public spaces.
He indicates the black sands of Samyang Beach that are popular with tourists in the summer for their reputed rejuvenative properties, but which, on a blustery December day, are covered with trash.
"The little pieces of Styrofoam -- they rake it every day. The plastic, the bottles, the buoys -- every day this washes up on shore. You don't see it on those popular beaches in summer because they are cleaned. But if you get off the beach and walk two feet down the coastline, then it's filthy."
A lot of the debris is flotsam and jetsam from fishing boats, lost or deliberately tossed overboard, which makes its way to shore. MacLellan says a lot also comes from people dumping garbage without regard to its final resting place.
"The wind takes it out to the ocean and the ocean brings it back," he says.
Members of Captain Cleans Green Machine take part in a park cleanup on Jan. 27, 2013
He has been thinking of a character like Captain Clean since as far back as 2009, but the masked hero only made his first public appearance in August last year. "I just wanted to have some volunteers come out with me and clean," he says. He mulled over how to get children and schools involved in such cleanups, and decided a superhero was the answer.
One of his students at the time was Lee Byung-gul, a professor of oceanography at Jeju National University and director of the Jeju Sea Grant Center there. The professor funded the first coastline cleanup at Jocheon, where about 45 volunteers joined Captain Clean to spend four to five hours cleaning the beach, removing 50 to 60 bags of garbage. The funds paid for transportation, food for the workers, hats, tongs to pick up trash and garbage bags, as well as banners to promote the initiative and the center.
Since then, Captain Clean's Green Machine has cleaned Gimnyeong Beach and, as part of the multi-national World Conservation Congress Jeju Island hosted last year, cleared sacks of debris from Bomok Pier in Seogwipo. They also cleaned Iho Beach in conjunction with a beach volleyball event, and held their first park cleanup Jan. 27.
Although some of the same people attend each event, each group has been mostly different people, MacLellan says, with the first few events consisting of mostly Koreans, including two school groups. More expats joined subsequent events and he says there is a good mix of local residents and temporary visitors, many of them English teachers. The Jeju Sea Grant Center has committed to funding all of the group's coastal cleanups throughout 2013 and hopefully far beyond.
MacLellan says he does not honestly think the Green Machine is making a big dent in the amount of garbage on Jeju, but he hopes it will change the attitudes of residents, both the school children involved and observers. He also hopes to find a local Korean willing to step into the costume of Captain Clean.
"So a Korean man or woman can go into the classroom and talk about environmentalism and the responsibility of dealing with your garbage in a proper way and of recycling," he explains.
"My goal is to have a cleanup once a month and eventually to have a Jeju-wide cleanup, where everybody, in every community, gets together, gets out and cleans their respective communities. I think when that happens, then you will see a difference in people's attitudes.
"I always tell people that Captain Clean is an idea. I tell them that it's not just Troy in a silly costume going around and cleaning coastlines and parks. I want them to realize Captain Clean is an idea - it's an attitude of environmentalism and cleanliness, of respect for your surroundings, for your community and for your island. I want that idea of Captain Clean to take hold."