Recently we had the opportunity to go and clean up Melbourne’s Yarra River. The project came about through our friends at Cleanwater Group when they were cruising the river with the Yarra Riverkeeper Association looking at places to install drain buddies and other catchment devices. Aaron, who has been out on our boats in the past, saw a major issue of polystyrene and plastic bottles piled up in the reed grass beds that line the river. The debris was getting stuck in behind the grass and would never be released. The issues, was bordering on severe with massive quantities of debris stretching along the banks.
His immediate reaction was that the river needed the team from Ocean Crusaders to remove this debris. So he sent me some photos and my immediate reaction was that with all that small polystyrene, that we needed a vacuum system to remove it. As the Cleanwater Group have vacuum systems on their trucks to clean out the drain buddies, we decided that it was a combined effort required to clean up the Yarra.
Melbourne Water came on board to help support a bit of the cost and we headed down with our new boat Salter to have a week long trial of what we could achieve. Never in my wildest dreams did I even expect that we would be so successful with the quantities of debris we would pull out over the coming week.
To be honest, the first day on the water was quite daunting. It had recently rained and the river had levels of rubbish I had only seen in third world countries. It was piled up in corners of marina’s, it was floating down the middle, it was even all over the boat ramp we had to launch our boat into. I felt a little overwhelmed and wondered how we would ever make a dent in the amount, but with the help of Mark Harvey (an avid volunteer debris removing machine) and the team from Cleanwater Water, we set about doing what we could in the limited time we had.
Our plan was to take the debris back to the banks of Yarra at the Wesley College Boathouse where we would display it for media and for our Paddle Against Plastic community event to be held the following Sunday. We also ensured that the debris would be sorted so we could find out what it was and where it was coming from, so the best people to engage in that is the team that run the Australian Marine Debris Initiative in Tangaroa Blue and with their fearless leader, the Queen of Marine Debris Data (Heidi Taylor) coming down personally, this was going to be a great event.
Day zero and we actually went to a Tangaroa Blue event under the Westgate Bridge. We wanted to try the vacuum and boat out and help out this event. On the way down we saw the state of the river. The banks were lined with debris. We cleaned for about 2 hours and half filled the boat. It was just the beginning as we trialed different ways to use the vacuum. Day 1 and we were off to find areas where reed grass beds lined the river. We found plenty and the shock of the amount of debris in behind these beds was amazing. As the tide was very high with the rains, the vacuum was put on hold as it really works best on dry banks (low tides). The boys were scooping up rubbish by the bag full with our nets. Working off the door of the boat, they would swipe the net through the grass beds and pick up three or four bottles, 10-15 pieces of polystyrene and a few balls in every scoop. It took ages to clean one spot due to the pure quantity of debris. By the end of day 1 we had already hit 1 tonne of debris.
Day two and we headed upstream to check out the entire river. We wanted to see the state all the way up to Dights Falls which would be our limit as no boats can access the river past that point. Whilst the debris thinned out a little as the reed grass beds dried up, there was plenty still to remove. Towards the falls the rubbish seemed to be more up in the trees from flood events. The plastic bags were numerous and as you went to grab them, they fell apart in your hands due to degradation. They had obviously been there a while. We also started finding a new type of debris….oBikes. These are community bikes that people pay to ride. They are not a ‘Back to Base’ system and hence you just leave them wherever you end up. Then people grab them and throw them in the river. Why? We will never understand that, but what we found on day 2 would be just the beginning.
Day three and we headed the other way, towards town. The tide was lower than we had seen and the oBikes became our morning mission. By 1000 we had a full load of 28 bikes heading back to base. We picked up a further 17 throughout the rest of the day. However for the first time the vacuum started to kick in. Tiny pieces of polystyrene littered the river banks. I wanted to say millions, but couldn’t really guess. There were so many that you could spend an hour by hand cleaning one square meter so the vacuum kicked in and if you watch the video here, you will see that it had an amazing result. Day three finished and we had hit 3.2 tonne.
Day 4 and we really only had half a day to clean as we had media commitments with the Minister for Water Victoria, the Hon Lisa Neville and Channel 9. We also had a few councils come and watch what we were doing as well. All the while the team from Tangaroa Blue, with help from employees of Vicinity Centers and the Emporium were counting the rubbish, separating it and finding out what it was we were collecting. The pile of bikes was impressive, but the real problem was slowly coming through.
Day 5, our final day and once again media and commercial commitment limited our cleaning, however we still managed to crack through 5.2 tonnes by the end of the week. 80 bikes was one major pile of bikes, however the final tally of pieces of polystyrene floored even me. The team from Emporium painstakingly counted every piece of polystyrene from 1/8th of one bag of vacuuming. They pulled out thousands of pieces. They then extrapolated that data and came up with a figure that will blow you away. 4,700,000 pieces. To give you an indication of the scale of this problem in this small area, the AMDI recently hit 10 million items from clean ups over years. That means we nearly hit half of that in one week with this vacuum. We have named the vacuum Snuffleupagus and it is an amazing machine.
We had hit the Yarra with all intentions of cleaning it as much as possible. I kept getting asked how much of the Yarra we had cleaned and to be honest I couldn’t answer that convincingly. Whilst we covered the entire area from the city to Dights falls, we did not clean it to our usual high standards. We simply didn’t have the time to do that. If I had to have a guess, we probably did a 10% job of it. I’m not saying their is 50 tonne of rubbish in the river, I’m saying that we did the bulk rubbish and really had no time to focus on the detail. The detail is really important as it is the small bits that effect our wildlife more than the larger bits. Yes large bits break up into smaller pieces, but the smaller pieces are the immediate threat.
And all of this does not take into account the micro-plastics in the river.
The good news is that government, councils, Melbourne Water and Parks Victoria are open to ideas on how to improve the state of the river. So we will be working on solutions with them over the coming months and hopefully we can implement those solutions as soon as possible to protect our waterways and the creatures that live in them.