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Cape York beaches clean up yields tonnes of plastic

Messages in a bottle washed up on a remote Far North Queensland beach are not the only treasures Vanessa Carey and her band of volunteers find during foreshore clean ups.

Tonnes of rubbish including plastics, ghost nets and bottles are covering Cape York beaches like never before and pose a real threat to the survival of marine life.

Sixteen volunteers from the Tangaroa Blue Foundation, which staged its first clean-up in Western Australia 15 years ago, recently converged on the Five Beaches area along the eastern side of the Tip of Cape York Peninsula.

In Maori and Polynesian mythology, Tangaroa is the god of the ocean.

Popular with the 40,000 or so four wheel drive vehicles which travel to the Tip each dry season, the Five Beaches track offers a unique adventure traversing the untouched foreshores of the Peninsula passing by huge Aboriginal middens (old deposits of marine shells) nestled between the sand dunes.

In 2016 the far northern beaches clean-up, 8,303 items produced more than 1.75 tonnes of debris from along foreshores starting at Somerset on the eastern side of Cape York near the Tip.

The Australian Government has supported the removal of rubbish by Tangaroa Blue Foundation from northern shorelines under the Australian Marine Debris Initiative with funding under the Reef Clean project providing vehicles, provisions and camping equipment.

The program also covers the cleaning up of major waterways, creeks and stormwater drains.

Hazel Bushby,16 and Dylan Long, 15 with Vanessa Carey(r) are two of the youngest members of the team

Volunteers come from a multitude of backgrounds, from young to old, originating from across the nation.

Coordinator of the Tip project, Vanessa Carey, from Townsville, said the campaigns also collected rubbish from any waterways because most of them were connected to the ocean.

“We work with National Parks and indigenous ranger groups all the time in each region who usually help us remove the debris from the beaches,” she said.

“They bring it back to camp where the volunteers will sort it for landfill, and record it but the majority goes to recycling or for art supplies.

“After that the rangers come with trucks and utes and we give it to them in bags and bulk bags. About 95 per cent is plastic.

“We went to the Tip and we found local litter definitely not washing in; it was obviously visitors leaving their drink bottles and cans behind but there wasn’t much though but there was some up in the rocks.

In 2016 the clean-up at Chili Beach, north of the Aboriginal community of Lockhart yielded 6 tonnes of rubbish.

Volunteers have quite a philosophical view of why they spend weeks at a time away from families, participating in an often arduous collection of rubbish in remote parts of Queensland.

Dylan Long,15; Peter Spelling,71; Janine Thompson,65; Romayne Westwood,64; Hazel Bushby,16; Louise French,65 and Molly Blake,26

Louise French explained her motive: “My friend Romaine was talking about the clean-up and it was at her suggestion that I make contact with Vanessa to sign up, it has been one of the BEST decisions I’ve made. I joined not just for the great opportunity of seeing another part of our beautiful country but also to help in doing something so rewarding as to save our marine life from human destruction.”

Peter Spelling wanted to do something for his granddaughter: “As a semi retiree l was looking for something different to do as a volunteer. There is so much in the news about the state of the ocean l was given the opportunity by the Tangaroa Blue Foundation to give something back to my adopted country. I have an 18 month old granddaughter and hope that in some small way it will make the future for her and her generation a little brighter.”

Volunteers collect the debris in large carry bags then take it back to their campsite where it is sorted and catalogued.

A detailed analysis of barcodes and brand names on plastics revealed much of the debris originates from overseas and not from Australia as first thought.

Vanessa and her crew have become super sleuths by tracking debris and analysing barcodes on plastic bottles which eventually identified an illegal fishing operation.

At Chilli beach in 2016 a recovered Vietnamese plastic drink bottle with a new label was reported to Borderforce on Thursday Island.

Borderforce then passed on the information to ocean mapping scientists and based on GPS points provided by Tangaroa Blue, scientists were able to map offshore currents which led to a fleet of Vietnamese fishing vessels operating illegally in Australian waters.

Well-wisher messages in a bottle

Unusual and interesting items have been found on beaches but perhaps the most intriguing was a sealed bottle containing jumbled messages written on paper, found in May 2018 at Cape Bedford, 400 klm north of Cairns

Message in a bottle washed up on Cape Bedford

It could have been hand-written by a teenager or child with a penchant for a quality car. One part of the message seems to be a child’s wish list:

“I wish to have a mansion with everyone’s own space to have my siblings, parents, grandparents nieces and nephews living in one house….”

It rambles on, “I wish I could get a good sleep….I wish for happiness to all, end war and …….I wish one day to own a Range Rover…”


The Australian Marine Debris Initiative was created 15 years ago as a sharing platform for groups or individuals to contribute rubbish data as a means to create a long-term solution rather than a band-aid simply by removing debris from beaches.

Vanessa says just cleaning up is not enough.

“We need to take that extra step and record what we’re finding so that the issue is solved at the source by education and evidence provided from the data which could change legislation.”

‘Did you lose a thong? No I found one’

AMDI data reveals how perilous it is for marine life to live among a sea of plastic and ropes much of which ends up in the stomachs of fish, turtles, sharks and many other marine animals.

This list is from the latest clean-up along Far Northern beaches:

A total of 32,552 hard plastic remnants reveal stages of degradation and duration the items have been immersed:

  • 7621 plastic lids, bottle tops
  • 1315 rope scraps
  • 1068 plastic soft remnants
  • 918 rubber thongs
  • 913 plastic drink bottles
  • 527 pieces of broken glass
  • 301 plastic personal care bottles
  • 297 foam packaging and insulation
  • 257 metres of rope

Nearly all items originate from offshore.

Up to 40,000 pieces of plastic are estimated to float in every square kilometre of ocean. Up to 800 marine species worldwide including 77 Australian species are impacted by marine debris. Over 75% of what is removed from our beaches is made of plastic.

Tangaroablue, a non-profit organisation created the AMDI, which has since removed 1217 tonnes of rubbish over 3346 sites, staffed by 152,583 volunteers collecting 14,833,899 items taking over 390,154 hours.