The great Australian garbage map: 75% of beach rubbish made of plastic | Environment

Australians are battling against a tide of millions of pieces of discarded plastic debris at beach clean-up events all across the continent, according to two years of data analysed by Guardian Australia.

Some 2,651,613 pieces of debris were collected from beaches and recorded in a database during 2016 and 2017, with about three-quarters of items made from plastics.

Tangaroa Blue Foundation gave Guardian Australia exclusive access to data for 2016 and 2017 from its huge Australian marine debris initiative database of beach clean-ups stretching back to 2004.

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most common material collected in beach clean-ups

Guardian Graphic | Data courtesy
Tangaroa Blue Foundation. Guardian Australia acknowledges the Australian Marine Debris Initiative and the community organisations, partners and individuals involved in the collection and provision of data used in this report.

“We know it’s bad and we don’t need any more data to tell us that we have a problem,” says Heidi Taylor, founder and managing director of charity Tangaroa Blue.

An assortment of plastic items are filling the bags and buckets of collectors, from plastic straws, bags and film to food containers, bottles, caps and drinking straws.

Many items have already broken apart into an almost uncountable number of smaller microplastic pieces.

Taylor says aside from their own records, a huge amount of material is also collected by volunteers, casual but conscientious beach walkers and local government staff.

Craig Macintyre, a director of Surfrider Foundation and its Sunshine Coast branch president, is in his tenth year involved in beach clean-ups.

“You walk up to the high tide line and you see all these really small pieces and in my time, those smaller pieces have got a lot worse. It’s turning into sludge.”

Surfrider Foundation is one of more than 1000 organisations that collects data from its clean-ups and passes it to Tangaroa Blue.

Macintyre says at an event at Byfield National Park, north of Rockhampton, the amount of plastics had some volunteers in tears.

“It’s a beautiful part of the world but it’s getting smashed by marine debris,” he said. “We even dug down about a metre [into the sand] and it was unbelievable.”

Tangaroa Blue, named after the Māori and Polynesian god of the ocean, recorded its 10 millionth piece of plastic debris last year.

chart of debris

More than 1000 partners, including schools, other charities, local car groups and government agencies, send their data to the initiative for recording. “They do amazing work and we would not have all this data without them,” Taylor added.

A big motive for the data collection is to help stakeholders to understand where the debris is coming from, so they can then work with industries and governments to cut off litter at the source.

“This is all about source reduction so we can identify the people that we need to talk to and have as a partner to try and stop this happening in the future.

“One large item that’s removed stops that from fragmenting into millions of tiny pieces – and those smaller pieces are much harder to remove.”

In one example, Taylor says coloured plastic strapping tape found on beaches in south-west Western Australia was traced with help from a commercial fisherman to the rock lobster industry.

After about six years of meetings and negotiations, the West Australian government stopped those plastic straps being taken to sea.

“We need to shift our focus from cleaning up to stopping it at source and the responsibility is holistic – we need legislation and compliance, but we also need manufacturers and retailers to do their bit,” she said. “At a federal level, we really have little response – zip. But we also need an international response.”

“And we need consumers to stop buying crap and to dispose of their stuff properly. We have items in our hands and we can think if we actually need it and what do we do with it when we’ve finished with it. We should be able to solve this.”

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