By Danielle Williams and Thuy Hong Bui
Australia is renowned for its beautiful beaches and marine
environment. From Bondi Beach to the Great Barrier Reef, we’ve built a reputation – and a thriving tourist industry – on the beauty of our coastline. But are our beaches really as clean as they appear?
Each week, at beaches around the country, volunteers from Responsible Runners come together and collect up to 10 kilos of rubbish off their local beach, often in just 30 minutes. Responsible Runners was founded in 2012 with the aim of reducing marine debris by encouraging locals to take part in regular clean-ups at Bondi Beach. There are now more than 15 groups operating in communities throughout NSW and Australia, all promoting the “Pulse Up, Waste Down” philosophy.
Leanne Ooi is a co-founder of Responsible Runners in Brighton-Le-Sands, which was launched last week. Unlike many beach users, she noticed the cigarette butts, plastic bottles and other waste gathering on the beach. “It actually looked pretty clean, but when you take a closer look there’s so much rubbish on there,” she said. “It makes me really angry when people can’t dispose of their litter in the correct way. I often pick up rubbish on my own but it does feel a bit hopeless.”
Coming across Responsible Runners gave Leanne the inspiration to step up her rubbish collecting efforts and join a growing movement.
“When I heard about the group, I realised we can have a bigger impact and raise more awareness if we have more people contributing. It’s social and it’s educational and hopefully we’ll pick up some momentum and have a positive impact on our planet,” she says.
Of course, it’s not easy convincing the general public to take part in the clean-ups. Justin Bonsey, founder of the Responsible Runners campaign, admits some people are initially bemused by the idea.
“Some people look at us like we just got out of prison, we’re working on our parole or something,” he says. “But a lot of people are really excited about it because we all see rubbish on the beaches and nobody likes it. Some people will pick up a couple of pieces and they’ll hand it to us, which is fantastic because that’s exactly what we want, for people to take responsibility.”
Responsible Runners members are more than just rubbish collectors. As vital as their weekly clean-ups are to the environment, it’s the data on the waste they’ve collected that can really make a difference. Heidi Taylor is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Tangaroa Blue, a not-for-profit organisation committed to improving marine health. In 2004 it set up the Marine Debris Initiative, a database that now holds information on rubbish collected at over 1400 Australian beaches.
Heidi Taylor acknowledges the work of Responsible Runners and other groups that painstakingly sort through rubbish collected to record exactly what is finding its way to our beaches and into the ocean. “Some of our data sets come from community groups or individual volunteers who have done monthly clean-ups at their site for almost 10 years. You could never buy information like that.”
The Marine Debris Initiative has also given volunteers a new perspective on their work. “Through this project, they’re no longer just rubbish collectors. Now they’re investigators and scientists, and they’re helping with a solution,” she says.
Both the Responsible Runners and Tangaroa Blue see the biggest waste problem as plastic – bottles, straws, cutlery, toys and even cigarette butts, which are composed of cellulose acetate, a sort of plasticised wood fibre. It’s this “single-use disposable waste” that is having such a devastating impact on marine life.
Heidi says, “More than 75 per cent of the rubbish collected is plastic, and that just continues to break up into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces. It gives you an idea that it’s impossible to start collecting stuff that’s microscopic.”
Using the data collected, Tangaroa Blue has been able to advocate for stronger policies on recycling and managing waste. It also lobbies industry and manufacturers on the issue of packaging, the source of much of the plastic waste collected on our beaches.
Most recently Responsible Runners and Tangaroa Blue were instrumental in lobbying the NSW Government for a 10c deposit on bottles and cans. In February, the Government committed to the implementation of a container refund scheme effective from July 2017. Justin is excited about the possibilities of such a scheme for reducing the amount of waste left on the beach. “People realise that NSW has one of the lowest recycling rates in all of Australia, and with this important legislation we can double our recycling rate and get upwards of 80-85% recycling on bottles and cans.”
Leanne is also optimistic. On Responsible Runners she says. “It’s already Australia-wide so I hope in time we can really have an impact on cleaning up our world.”