Picking up the gauntlet

Trash is ruining our beaches. Luckily, there are those who are doing something about it.

 Illustration by Emily Chandler

Illustration by Emily Chandler


Field Studies is a monthly column by Clare Watson, who travels around Australia and the world exploring science by participating in studies, visiting research institutes, going on trips with scientists, and a lot more.

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Australians are fringe dwellers: more than 80% of our population lives within 50km of the shore, and families flock to the beach in summer. We cling to the coast — and so does our rubbish. 

Our large cities leak rubbish from storm water drains. Litter is left behind by busy beach crowds. Once it makes its way into the sea, debris is carried thousands of kilometres along ocean currents, far from the original culprit. Once in the ocean, plastics disintegrate into tiny pieces so small that plankton are ingesting them; on shore, rubbish piles up on exposed coastlines. 

Since 2004, the Australian Marine Debris Database has been collecting data on garbage that impacts beaches around the country. The online database enables volunteers and organisations to tally the amount and types of rubbish they collect at their local site: food wrappers, glow sticks, fishing line, party poppers, plastic bottles, toothbrushes and more. A handy guidebook means anyone is welcome to add to the database — and that this can be done in a consistent and scientific manner by an army of volunteers.

As Heidi Taylor, director of Tangaroa Blue, the foundation that manages the database, explains: “Collecting data is just as important as removing the stuff off the beach. If all we do is clean up, we’re going to be doing that forever”.

The publicly available data is used to track debris back to the source. Commercial fishing gear discarded in international waters is often identifiable by make, likewise products by their packaging. Otherwise, retracing prevailing winds and ocean currents can lead back to the likely source. Only with this information can we devise strategies to stop the flow of rubbish into our oceans, like banning microplastic beads in personal hygiene products and the use of plastic bags. No policy will be instated without evidence — and that’s what the database provides.

In just one hour, we collect over six kilograms of rubbish. I comb through the sand with a go-go-gadget pick-up claw, my eyes scanning for bright plastic fragments, mimicking a bowerbird. Male bowerbirds meticulously decorate their twig shelters, or bowers, with coloured treasures to attract a mate. Satin bowerbirds are perhaps the best known for hoarding anything blue — sadly, that now means many bottle caps and straws. For all the half-submerged rubbish that we yank out, it makes you wonder how much trash is buried deeper in the sand, or is too small to catch your eye but gets swallowed up the food chain. 

Picking up rubbish is a guilty experience. Every step had me questioning my own habits as a consumer: I use my calico bags but by choosing to shop at one outlet for the sake of time, most products come wrapped in plastic. Sorting through the amassed litter, itemising each object found, is also a frank insight into the values of our society: fast, convenient and cheap.

If you only consider the rubbish at a site to be litter from people living nearby or those who have visited recently, it’s easy to pass the buck to someone else. “It’s not mine,” you might say, “I didn’t leave it there.” Truth is, it’s ours — collectively. Our disposable lifestyle is leaving its mark, even on remote and uninhabited beaches. 

“The problem isn’t so much about littering; it’s about society’s over-reliance on unnecessary plastic products,” remarks Dan Smith, who heads up the Clean Coast Collective. 

Dan and his partner Natalie Woods launched the Clean Coast Collective after driving around Australia in their 4WD, armed with gardening gloves to collect trash. They quickly realised the scale of the problem and that they would need many more hands to help. They returned to Cape York with ten others — the Trash Tribe — and with the help of Tangaroa Blue, catalogued what they found. 

Cape York is Australia’s northern spire. On its eastern edge, buffered from the rest of the mainland by Iron Range National Park but open to the ocean, lies Chilli Beach. It’s a dusty two-day drive from Cairns, closer to Papua New Guinea than the next Australian state or territory. The palm trees are sculptured by the winds, bent back like a stiff comb-over. The water retreats from the beach at low tide, leaving a reflective sheen on the wet sand; then high tide pushes another layer of rubbish back to land, as if the ocean is refusing to accept our waste. 

Garbage is delivered to Chilli Beach by ocean currents and trade winds, which are onshore most of the year. Dan tells me that for such a remote location, Chilli Beach is littered with evidence of humans. For ten days, the group cleaned the beach. In total, they removed three tonnes of marine debris, including one playground slide. Twelve pairs of hands collected over 90,000 individual items and every piece was recorded in the Australian Marine Debris Database. 

As a child, I had the privilege of exploring our wide country with my family, from the white opal mines in Coober Pedy to the red gorges of the Kimberly, from the deserted beaches in Broome to tropical Cairns. Hearing these reports of the rubbish strewn along Chilli Beach was alarming. I felt disconnected from the land that had raised me and moved to get involved in beach clean-ups in my local area.

It has been wakeup call to reassess the impact on the environment of choice and lifestyle at an individual level — at the source. Every day I have a choice to refuse plastic by buying locally and in bulk or remembering to pack reusable utensils. And it goes a step further, to a resolution to learn to lead a sustainable lifestyle, starting with a veggie patch perhaps. Like anything rewarding, it will take time and effort.



Trash Tribe is a short film by the Clean Coast Collective documenting their expedition to Chilli Beach, Cape York, in July 2015. You can watch the film here

If you would like to contribute to the Australian Marine Debris Database, follow the steps on the Tangaroa Blue website, print a data collection sheet and head to your local beach. Tangaroa Blue are taking steps to expand the database and collection methods to include microplastics data.

Edited by Jack Scanlan