Plastic pollution travels the globe

By Hannah Spyksma, originally featured in Western Leader/Fairfax NZ

Sea Dragon first mate Emily Penn at a rubbish dump on Kiritimati Island.

Sea Dragon first mate Emily Penn at a rubbish dump on Kiritimati Island.

A thirst quencher guzzled back in seconds and then swiftly deposited, a bottle is emptied and disposed of, its end destination not given a moment's thought.

Years later that plastic bottle somehow washes up on the coral shores of remote Christmas Island, Kiribati, a thousand kilometres from Hawai'i in the central Pacific Ocean.

Bleached and sun parched, its disintegrating skeleton is later picked up by Aucklander Cathy Romeyn.

The intrepid traveller found herself on the remote windward side of Christmas Island, due south of Hawai'i, as part of Pangaea Explorations Pacific Island Survey earlier this year.

Pangaea, operating out of 22-metre yacht Sea Dragon, is an environmental research organisation focused on plastic pollution and marine debris in the Pacific.

Its sailing expeditions are planned by Emily Penn, a long-time member of Auckland charity Sustainable Coastlines whose penchant for ocean explorations tempted Ms Romeyn to jump aboard for the Kiribati to Hawai'i leg of the journey.

The duo – along with six others – spent a week on tropical Christmas Island, the largest coral atoll in the world, where they experienced first-hand the realities of an issue that keeps swimming around our oceans.

"Going to that windward side of the island, walking 100 paces and finding 63 fizzy bottles that had probably just washed up there from the western world was pretty eye-opening," Ms Romeyn says.

With a population of around 5000 Christmas Island is by no means the smallest island in the sea.

But the Kiwi couldn't help but feel plastic pollution was an issue that had washed up on its shores.

As well as walking the barren coastline to document rubbish which has been brought ashore by ocean currents which traverse the central Pacific, Ms Romeyn also visited the local tip on the outskirts of capital town London.

If the remains of plastic bottles scarred the coast of the island then the charred leftovers of burnt plastic and unloved electronics plagued the palm-fringed inner-island wasteland.

"The problem there is that what are you going to do with this stuff, you can't bury it, and you can't get rid of it," she says.

Christmas Island is receiving more plastic-wrapped items via imported produce than its inhabitants can effectively deal with.

There are limited waste management services in place and the local council prioritises collecting rubbish from the hospital once a week above maintaining a collection system for residents.

The waste can't be buried because the water table is too close to the surface and ships don't come regularly enough to remove rubbish.

So it is strewn across the edges of a road cut through a coconut tree forest in the middle of the island and burnt, releasing toxins into the air.

The putrid smell of plastic fumes fills the streets most nights.

Kiribati is one of the poorest countries in the world, a developing nation that is still trying to establish effective communication systems on its remote islands which straddle the equator.

For a culture and lifestyle which has been largely based on subsistence living, effective systems to deal with the increase of western influences on the island are still a long way off.

Camden Howitt and the crew at Auckland-based Sustainable Coastlines have been tackling some of these problems.

Mr Howitt is part of a team dedicated to cleaning up the waterways around New Zealand and the Pacific.

Since the organisation started its coastal clean-ups in 2008 578,550 litres of rubbish have been pulled from places as local as the Tamaki River to as far as Tonga.

As well as doing coastal clean-ups, Sustainable Coastlines aims to create an awareness of the realities of plastic consumption.

"You get that lifestyle of consumption all in one handful of rubbish off the beach – it shows global pollution washed up on the coastlines," Mr Howitt says.

He was part of Pangaea Exploration's Cook Island beach survey.

He says that even in tourist riddled Rarotonga the remnants of plastic pollution are never far – just because beaches are cleaned for tourists it doesn't mean rubbish isn't there.

"You go in front of the resorts and sure they've been raking the beaches.

"On the surface it's positive because people don't see the litter but sometimes it's better that they see it and think oh my gosh what's the story here – there's a whole bunch of rubbish in a beautiful place."

Sustainable Coastlines isn't trying to change laws or lobby for tighter litter controls in New Zealand.

Instead members such as Miss Penn and Mr Howitt are trying to create an awareness that individuals can make a difference.

Back in Auckland Ms Romeyn thinks that in general New Zealanders have pretty good habits towards keeping our beaches clean of litter.

Cathy Romeyn at a rubbish dump on Kiritimati Island

Cathy Romeyn at a rubbish dump on Kiritimati Island

But she agrees with Sustainable Coastline's message in being individually responsible for keeping an eye on what products you use and dispose of.

"I guess what I came away with the most from my trip is that plastic is an amazing product – it's never going to go away and we're never going to get rid of it," she says.

"That single use plastic thing really stuck with me – like going to the supermarket and putting a couple of lemons into a plastic bag which then goes into another plastic bag."

She says seeing a wasteland of plastic products which will never break down just drove home the point that being resourceful and thoughtful with consumer habits is a fair way to live.

Ms Romeyn says this is also easy to do in New Zealand, compared to countries such as Kiribati which don't have the luxury of systems which mean disposing of rubbish is as easy as putting it in the bin.

Her opinion is also shared by Watercare's Waitemata Harbour Clean Up Trust manager Mark Bourne.

The trust has pulled 215,000 litres of rubbish out of the Waitemata Harbour this year alone.

It contracts a fulltime employee to operate a boat and scoop litter out of the rivers, creeks, estuaries and harbours which surround the city of sails.

Mr Bourne says habits towards littering in Auckland have improved dramatically since the trust started in 2002.

But the manager is also aware that ongoing emphasis needs to be put on each person being a tidy Kiwi.

Mr Bourne is a strong advocate of stopping the littering at its source – before it enters these water ways and ultimately floats out to sea – becoming the bottle Ms Romeyn picked up on that hardened coral beach.

"It's a simple message really, if you see litter in the street then pick it up, otherwise we do three years later when its stuck in a waterway somewhere."

Visit www.panexplore.com or www.sustainablecoast lines.org.nz for more information on the research.