SUFB 073: Marine Debris Analysis and Clean Up with Heidi Taylor

Speak Up For Blue Podcast

Today we’re going to highlight some of the amazing work that a small organization down under is doing to address the huge amount of debris currently littering our oceans. Andrew skyped in with Heidi Taylor, Managing Director at the Tangaroa Blue Foundation, to discuss her organization’s mission of preventing marine debris in Australia and how they’ve worked towards that goal.

Heidi really became passionate about marine debris a little over ten years ago as a dive shop manager and scuba instructor. While diving among Australian reefs, shipwrecks, and areas of the open ocean, she would encounter a disturbing amount of garbage that seemed to come from both her home country and abroad. And while some environmental organizations were coordinating beach clean ups in her area, Heidi saw this as only addressing the symptoms of a larger issue. We could clean up beaches from now until kingdom come, but debris will still find its way into our oceans. Instead, it’s more prudent to prevent plastic from ending up in our waterways and landfills by reducing the supply of disposable plastics and by practicing more responsible consumption. That is the philosophy of Tangaroa Blue, a charity founded by Heidi and her partners in 2004. Her organization works to bring together everyone with an interest in marine debris at all levels from plastic manufacturers and suppliers to surfers, fishermen, and environmental advocates. Together, they work on a variety of projects to prevent marine debris and plastic pollution in Australia through a reasoned and level headed approach.

With only three full time staff and a small team of field experts, Heidi and her crew have been successful in legislation and policy changes regarding marine debris. However, they also focus heavily on providing assistance to small, local communities that may not have the infrastructure or resources necessary to clean up debris at its source. In the interview, Heidi discusses how Tangaroa Blue was able to help a remote population in Wadeye (in Australia’s Northern Territory) set up a sustainable recycling program:

“It’s 300-400 kilometers from the nearest major city, it’s basically in the middle of nowhere and when the monsoon rains start you can’t drive in there at all. It’s only [accessible] by boat. They’ve been doing marine debris projects now for two years since we’ve started working with them, and they want to be able to recycle [but] they can’t recycle anything there. And with some framework of this source reduction planning that we’ve been working [on] with the rangers, they’ve decided that they really wanted to set up a recycling project. They were able to engage the trucking companies and the bargers that supply the community, they engaged the local council, the school, the men’s and the women’s groups, and now they’ve set up this recycling project where their recycling gets taken back by the barge to Darwin, they have partner in Darwin that collects it and sells it, and they are able then to get some money back to help the program going. Even in the most isolated places in Australia, there [are] things you can do. You just need to be really creative and bring the right people together.”

None of this work would be possible without the massive amounts of data that Tangaroa Blue and their volunteers collect on marine debris on a regular basis. According to Heidi, “it’s so disheartening if all you do is go to the beach and clean up day after day after day. But because [our volunteers] can see the difference that their collection and the data is making, we get a lot of volunteers that are long term. We’ve got datasets from Australia where volunteers have collected from the same site every month for the last ten years.” This data collection is a huge part of what Heidi’s organization does to address marine debris, and is the driving force behind the company’s ability to clean up Australia’s waterways and build professional relationships. Groups like the plastic industry don’t want to sit down with aggressive, protesting environmental advocates; they do, however, want to sit down with organizations that have data on how preventing plastic pollution can save them money.

Though it’s important to win the support of big fish like the plastic industry and the Australian government, Heidi stresses that we can prevent a lot of garbage from entering our oceans by making small changes in the way we buy products. By learning more about product packaging and other marketing tricks used by manufacturers, we can practice more responsible consumption. These individual purchasing moments are where most of the change will happen, because as Heidi so eloquently put it “if we stop buying crap, they stop making crap.”

Enjoy the Podcast!

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