Be a Litter Hero

What’s wrong with these pictures of scenic tourist spots?

Yes, you guessed it Litter! I found food wrappers at Tawhai Falls, Tongariro National Park and Huka Falls, Taupō, and a used baby nappy at Lake Taupō.

They’re not the shots I chose for my Instagram feed. In fact I nearly didn’t take them at all. But if I’m always looking for the most beautiful shot, my photos aren’t telling the whole truth about what I’m seeing. So I asked myself, what is the truth about litter in New Zealand?

If no one picks it up, what happens to this litter?

It’s not just that litter looks unsightly and spoils our photos. Cigarette butts contain poisons and plastics which affect plant growth and pollute waterways. Nappies and food wrappers also contain plastic which have an impact on plants and wildlife. 

And there is something all 3 of these pictures have in common, they are all by rivers or lakes. A gust of wind and this litter will end up in our waterways, washed down rivers and out to sea. On its way to the sea it endangers freshwater animals and plants and out at sea marine life is endangered. Litter can also can get pushed in by tides and currents onto our beaches.

Litter on the beach

Just how bad is littering in New Zealand?

Here are some facts from the Keep New Zealand Beautiful website:

  • cigarette butts account for 78% of all items littered in New Zealand
  • more than 25,000 kg of plastic is littered every day (that’s about the weight of 15 medium sized cars)
  • the second most common item to be littered is takeaway packaging 
  • you are much more likely to find litter on highways and around shops and shopping malls than in the recreational places like in these photos
  • 84% of people do the right thing and dispose of litter in bins or take it home
Slogan from Keep New Zealand Beautiful

What can you do?

I’ve gathered lots of ideas about caring for the environment in New Zealand Nature Heroes, including how to organise a beach clean up and ways to advocate for nature. 

Knowing what our litter problems are, gives us an opportunity to fix them. Questions like: how much litter? what things are littered?  where is it? where did it come from? are all useful for thinking about how to prevent it. So counting our litter and types of litter is an important first step to fixing the problem. Here’s more ways you can get involved:

The Litter Intelligence Project in Action

Our local litter monitoring group did its first beach survey on 8 March. The area we surveyed had previously been surveyed 3 times in 2019 by other volunteers working on the Litter Intelligence project. Now that we are trained and our local group will be repeating this survey every three months.

The Pukerua Bay Litter Monitoring Group in action

Here’s what we found:

  • plastic items were the most frequently found – 322 items
  • we picked up over 3 kg of glass, including bottles and broken glass
  • common household items included a piece of lego and clothes pegs
  • the strangest items were 13 shotgun wads (see below)
  • two very sharp fishing hooks were found, along with fishing line and rope
Classifying the litter before counting and weighing it

You can see a map of our survey area and our detailed results here: 

Here is how the Litter Intelligence project works:

  • We repeat the survey in the same place every 3 months, so that the data we collect can be compared over time. 
  • While we clear litter off the survey area, the focus is not so much on a whole beach clean up as on investigating what litter we have found. Cleaning up the rest of the beach is something other volunteers can do.
  • We categorise the litter we find and count and weigh it. This part of the survey takes longer than picking up the litter.
  • Our data is added to a nationwide data base which can be used to identify problems and trends.
  • Over time we hope that the litter monitoring community will also be able to come up with solutions to the litter problem. (You can read here about how some children investigated shotgun wads they found on their local beach.)
  • Sustainable Coastlines provide us with infrastructure, support and equipment including survey tools, gloves, and litter sacks.
  • More information about the Litter Intelligence Project here including ideas about how you can reduce litter in the environment:
In Denmark a huge fish made up of litter found at sea reminds people where their litter often ends up,and that fish and other wildlife are affected by this

Note: The New Zealand litter photos were taken in February of this year prior to the Covid19 lockdown and the dramatic drop of tourists and travellers, local and international.

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