Cleaning-up Northern Islands

At the end of October, the Tangaroa Blue team headed about as far north as you can get in Australia for a clean-up in the Torres Strait.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) Land and Sea Management Unit, invited us to come up to help them kick off their ReefClean activities on Badu Island.

The day we flew in, the air was hazy and everything smelt like a big campfire from several scrub fires scattered around Horn Island. After a quick lunch, we jumped onto the ferry to Thursday Island for an afternoon clean-up with students and teachers from Tagai State College.

In an hour, we collected 13kg of rubbish from a 590m stretch of sand at Federal Beach. I think everyone was surprised to see how much was there when on the first impression, it actually didn’t look like a particularly dirty beach. The rubbish included around 300 cigarette butts as the beach offers a beautiful place to sit for office workers from the buildings opposite the beach taking breaks during the day. Students were surprised to hear that these butts are filled with plastic fibres and take around 10 years to break up in the environment.

The 27 year-nine students recorded information about the rubbish they were collecting as they moved along the beach. The teachers told us that students have been learning about the life cycle of consumable products, so the clean-up was a great way to see where some of the misplaced rubbish from the island ends up.

On the second day of our visit, we squeezed ourselves into a small aircraft with TSRA staff and headed to beautiful Badu Island in the western Torres Strait for the main event. When we arrived, we were greeted by almost 100 people, including rangers, elders, school students, and other community members. Everyone was very excited and there was quite a festive feel to the morning.

We started the day with community leaders and rangers, leading prayers and giving a moving talk about how it is the responsibility of all of us to look after nature and all of its beauty and riches. This was particularly poignant in a community that has always depended on the riches of the surrounding seas for their survival. Before heading down to the beach, Sylvia introduced participants to Tangaroa Blue and explained the importance of recording what kind of rubbish is turning up on beaches so that together we can work out where waste is coming from and try to find ways to fix the problem.

In what was an amazing feat of organisation, TSRA Rangers and staff broke everyone into four groups and we separated to cover different sections of the southern beaches of Badu. Participants were delivered to the furthest locations in a community mini-bus and TSRA staff moved between groups collecting full bags of rubbish for weighing and disposal. Everything ran like clock-work.

Among these beaches was a 90m stretch beside the local wharf that has been identified as their audit beach. All debris from this beach was sorted and counted to give a snapshot of rubbish on the island’s south coast. The enthusiastic group of kids sorted, weighed and counted the 42kg of rubbish, dominated by a mixture of hard and soft plastic food packaging, cigarette butts, glass, and cut timber.

Altogether, the volunteers took 226kg of rubbish off the beaches, including some large items such as an oven, an electric frying pan, and even a wheelchair. Most of the rubbish on these beaches appeared to be from local sources, but the rangers told us that in the north of the island, the beaches are covered in large amounts of rubbish that seems to originate from international sources.

After a busy morning cleaning up the beaches and sorting rubbish, we all reconvened in the community park for a BBQ and to continue chatting about the kinds of problems that rubbish on beaches can cause and how we can improve the situation to make it easier to keep the sea and beaches clean. Then, when it was all over, the kids jumped back into their bus to school and we headed back to Horn Island.

On the final day, before heading back south to Cairns, Flora and Hannah from TSRA joined us to do one last clean-up on Horn Island. Once again, the rubbish we collected seemed to be from local sources, with cigarette butts and labels and packaging from a nearby shipping compound the dominating items found. We collected 12kg of rubbish from the 180m length of beach, and the information gathered gave us a couple of avenues for on-going discussions to develop some source reduction projects to stop this waste from getting into the sea.

Thank you to the amazing Don, Flora, Gerald, Hannah, Troy, and Alice from TSRA for all the amazing work they did to make things run so smoothly, to Moni for inviting us to attend, and for the enthusiasm and support of the whole Badu Island Community in looking after the spectacular waters and island of the Torres Straits.

Written by Johanna Karam

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