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Can New Zealand tidy up its beaches?
Sustainable Coastlines sets an ambitious goal for reducing coastal litter.
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Searching for microplastics in the sand. Image credit: Ellen Rykers.
There are 170 trillion bits of plastic floating in our oceans according to a new study – that’s 21,000 pieces for every person on Earth. It’s a confronting stat, and plastic pollution is only set to get worse without action. We might think we’re sheltered from the plastic tides in our cosy corner of the South Pacific, but it’s bad here in Aotearoa too. This week Stuff’s Andrea Vance reported from Rakiura’s Mason Bay, where tonnes of plastic waste are strewn across the remote stretch of sand and dunes.
“It’s really eye-watering,” Josh Borthwick, CEO at Sustainable Coastlines, says of our beach litter problem. Since 2009, Sustainable Coastlines has logged 1.7 million litres of rubbish picked off Aotearoa’s beaches – “and that’s just the stuff we’ve recorded via our volunteers. We’re just one national organisation.” Now, the non-profit has an ambitious goal to reduce coastal litter in Aotearoa by 60% by 2030.
“Most of the stuff we find is from what we call leakage,” says Borthwick. “Items that are supposed to go to landfill or into the recycling bin, but didn’t make it.” Often, these items will make their way into drains or waterways and out onto the coast. In urban areas, you’ll likely find food wrappers and packaging – and Borthwick says it’s particularly bad following extreme weather events. At a recent audit of Okahu Bay in Auckland, the litter density was double normal levels. Further afield, remote stretches of coast may be plagued by discarded fishing gear. (The weirdest item they find? “We've found the odd… How do I describe… a plastic rubber item that you might use in your bedroom,” says Borthwick.)
Plastic rubbish isn’t just an eyesore. It’s a huge problem for wildlife – including seabirds, turtles, fish and marine mammals – who inadvertently eat plastic. “When those plastics get into the stomach, they don't go anywhere. They don't get broken down or digested. So they just fill the animal's stomach up until it can't take any more food and then they die,” says Borthwick. Scientists have recently described a new disease in seabirds caused solely by plastic: plasticosis. And every time we enjoy a bit of kaimoana, we could be ingesting plastic too – with unknown health impacts. One recent study estimated that people ingesting the most plastic could be consuming a credit card’s worth every week.
Over the last four years, Sustainable Coastlines and its army of citizen science volunteers has catalogued 430,000 bits of beach trash, with plastic making up about 70%. It’s all collated into its Litter Intelligence platform – which will help measure progress towards the 60% reduction goal. This data also helps drive policy change, including recent moves by the government to phase out hard-to-recycle plastics. But ultimately, Borthwick says, they want Kiwis to see the problem firsthand, and advocate for change. “We need people to think more carefully about what they put into their shopping basket. What we do at home and in the office really impacts our environment,” he says. It could be as simple as swapping to keep cups or reusable water bottles.
And if you can’t make it to an organised beach clean up, Borthwick is a fan of the adage “take three for the sea”: “When you’re out and about, pick up three pieces of rubbish. That’s three pieces that aren't getting out into the ocean.”
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Heavy rainfall seen during Cyclone Gabrielle made more intense, more likely due to climate change
A rapid analysis of observational data from the World Weather Attribution initiative cautiously finds that devastating downpours – like that seen during Cyclone Gabrielle in Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti – are (very roughly) four times more common and drop 30% more rain due to warmer temperatures. Toby Manhire has the details, including why modelling couldn’t quantify the exact influence of climate change for this event. Meanwhile, a 1News poll finds that more than half of New Zealanders want the government to tackle climate change with more urgency. This comes as PM Chris Hipkins dumps a range of climate policies; Toby Manhire covers the policy purge and political reaction. (More on these developments in this morning’s Bulletin, too.)
What does climate change adaptation actually look like?
Shanti Mathias explores different sides of climate adaptation on The Spinoff, visiting an iwi farm for on-the-ground adaptation examples, talking to a housing expert, and admiring some art. Another climate solution, urban trees, are the topic of this episode from The Detail podcast, which investigates city trees’ benefits – from temperature regulation to making people happy. Plus, climate adaptation should be collective: in another banger piece, Mathias links climate change and mental health, exposing how a focus on individualist climate action can lead to feelings of hopelessness.
Electricity nearly reaches 95% renewable milestone
In the last quarter of 2022, 94.7% of electricity generated in New Zealand was from renewable sources – the cleanest electricity has been since records began, Olivia Wannan reports for Stuff. Meanwhile, the government is expected to announce soon whether the multibillion dollar pumped hydro scheme at Lake Onslow will go ahead – a decision that will have huge ramifications for electricity in New Zealand, but would destroy a significant wetland.
A message from Anna Rawhiti-Connell, editor of The Bulletin and head of audience at The Spinoff
I want to say a huge thank you to everyone reading who is a Spinoff Member. Thank you for valuing independent journalism and helping keep it free for everyone. If you’re not a member yet but would like to support our mahi, sign up today!
Backyard birdwatchers have been recording more tūī, kererū and pīwakawaka over the last ten years, according to Manaaki Whenua’s mid-winter Garden Bird Survey
Two native plant species previously believed to be extinct in the Auckland region have been rediscovered
Take a peek inside Svalbard’s global seed bank buried deep in the permafrost in a new virtual tour
President Biden’s 2024 budget proposal includes $24 billion for conservation and protecting communities from climate disasters
The artificial intelligence frenzy could come with a big carbon footprint, but a lack of transparency in the sector obscures total emissions
Carbon Brief breaks down what the High Seas Treaty means for climate and biodiversity
The Black Summer bushfires in Australia unleashed chemicals that expanded and prolonged the ozone hole
Hydrogen-fuelled aircraft undertakes test flight
The Auckland Council Compost Collective offers tips for composting like a pro
Image credit: Department of Conservation/Cornell Lab.
To finish this issue, the Royal Albatross Live Cam chick is getting so big! This adorable floof is 53 days old and already weighs 4kg. You can watch him grow up live on the RoyalCam, broadcast from the windy slopes of Taiaroa Head near Dunedin. Can confirm it is a happy distraction to have playing on your second monitor while working!
Soar like an albatross this week,
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