Plastic boats and plastic oceans

Last month I signed myself up for a Marine Debris Kayaking Challenge off Kooragang Island.  My new-found love of kayaking had run headlong into my guilt for always declining my friends’ repeated invites to Hunter Intrepid Landcare events. I had run out of excuses. It was time to give it a go.

This was the first time I’d taken part in volunteer clean up event since ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ activities run by my primary school.  I didn’t really know what to expect.

kayak flyer CMYK print

The day started with some short talks about marine debris and the impact it is having on the Hunter River and our oceans more broadly. Our hosts for the day showed us this trailer for the Midway Island film.

Once we were through the theory, we were let loose on our kayaks and charged off to Hexham Island, which is in the Hunter River, close to the highway.

The idea was that each of us would fill one bag with rubbish, then ferry it back to our home base on Ash Island. We quickly realised that wasn’t going to cut it.  There was too much trash.  The tinnie which was acting as our safety boat hauled load after load of trash off the island.

It was enormously satisfying to feel the weight of a bag that you had filled with items that would otherwise have continued their journey out, through Newcastle Harbour and into the sea.

It was also eye-opening to watch hard plastics shatter into tiny pieces when I tried to pick them up. Who knew that sun-baked ice cream containers were so brittle? I can see where all those tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean gyres come from.

When we were paddling we kept mistaking plastic bag for jelly blubbers and vice versa.  I can see how animals end get confused.

This island was not big. We had a lot of people collecting for hours. We didn’t get it all. At some point we had to return the kayaks.  It was oh-so-tempting to just grab one more plastic bottle, instead of leaving on time.

Back at base camp, the Rotary Club put on an epic lunch for us all.  After a morning of sunshine and mosquitos, we all needed to refuel before the great sorting mission.

Once the sorting was complete, we learned that our small army of volunteers had collected over 300kg of trash in total.

Plastic bottles were the most common items by far.  Once all the bottles were empty, their combined weight was over 40kg.

Glass bottles weighed in at 85kg.

Plastic bags carpeted in the muddy surface of the island. Our huge pile of plastic-bag-type material weighed around 25kg on its own.

Rubber thongs were common. One member of the group found a thong that was 7 feet tall.

We found furniture, car tyres, coffee cups, styrofoam, rusty electronics, pool toys, cigarette lighters, shoes, clothing, rope, fishing line and more.

We also ended up with a couple of unfortunate crabs.  I think an unlucky 13 had stowed away in our trash. The stoic survivors were released back into the wetlands.

I wonder how long it will take for the island to gather another 300kg of trash.  Probably not too long. Some good rain or a high tide might do the trick.

So what did I learn from all this?

I learned that picking up trash can be really fun! Who knew! If you have ever thought about attending a clean up event in your area, I encourage you to try it out.  I had thought that I would eventually get sick of the mosquitos and the mud. As it turned out, wandering around wetlands on my own was oddly relaxing.  Looking for trash meant that I was really paying attention to the shapes and colours in the world around  me. I noticed so much more about the plants, the river and the wildlife on the island that I would have if I was just walking through.

I learned that some folks are veteran cleaner-upper-ers.  I met one woman who was flying off that weekend to do a similar marine debris clean up near the Cocos Islands. I met teenagers who volunteered on Kooragang Island regularly and knew the names of all the things.  I met weekend warriors who worked in environmental consultancy during the week. I met folks who had travelled up to 5 hours to take part.

It was a really easy way to meet people and work towards a shared goal.  There were lots of good stories instead of the usual awkward small talk you would get if you threw a bunch of strangers together.

I learned that there is an insane number of plastic bottles in the world.  After I filled my fourth giant bag with plastic bottles, I wondered whether I had picked up more plastic bottles than I had used in my life, my year, my week.  The answer to the first two was probably no.

I learned that I’m actually ok with the idea of corporate sponsorship for these kinds of events.  In this case, the Port of Newcastle gave a grant which paid for our food and kayak hire.  Their banners were everywhere. They were mentioned in the advertising material and the local newspaper article about the event. There were a few quiet grumblings about their sincerity during the day.  Maybe its just my own corporate brainwashing, but I think that its great if corporates with cash to burn see value in supporting events like this one.  Comment below if you have strong thoughts on this.

I learned that it’s much more comfortable to ignore problems on huge global scales than it is to engage with them. By the end of the day I was overwhelmed and bummed out by the amount of plastic in the ocean. I was bummed out because I couldn’t see the global population radically changing its behaviour any time soon.  Plastic is so convenient in my daily life.  The negative impacts are out of my sight most of the time.

So what to do about it?

I know that one person reducing the amount of plastic that they use is not going to solve the world’s problems.  But it does feel better to at least try to change my own behaviour as best I can.

I use a super hipster keep-cup for my takeaway coffee now. My go-to coffee shop actually charges 50c less if you use take a re-usable cup.

I do my best to avoid buying bottled water.  I can get clean water from my tap. It’s rarely justified. I try to recycle and re-use glass and plastic bottles wherever possible.

I try to make electrolyte drinks in re-usable drink bottles when I’m out exercising.  You can buy all sorts of powders and tablets or make your own from scratch.

Since that bloody Midway film, whenever I get a craving for a single-serve chocolate milk, the image of a big dead plastic-filled albatross flashes through my head and my appetite falls away.

I always forget to take my canvas bags to the supermarket.   I was much better when I lived in Canberra where plastic bags were banned.

The NSW EPA have announced that it will roll out a container deposit scheme in December this year.  Under the scheme, small refunds will be paid when you return certain beverage containers to collection depots. Maybe that will motivate me to recycle more rigorously.

I’d love to hear your tips for reducing plastic.  I’d love to read about your experiences cleaning up your local area and the places that you love.  Until next time!

The majority of photos in this post were taken by Newcastle Herald photographer Max Mason-Hubers.  The remaining photos were taken by volunteers.
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