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New Zealand’s newest national park – and one of the most isolated spots in the country – is polluted with plastic trash. Andrea Vance and Iain McGregor investigate.
This story is featured on Stuff’s The Long Read podcast. Check it out by hitting the play button below, or find it on podcast apps like Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.
There they were, rustling in the red tussock. A pair of Rakiura tokoeka, the elusive Stewart Island brown kiwi, oblivious to the gleeful trampers, watching their every move for close to half an hour.
For Harry Pearson and Jan Jordan, this was the capstone of the perfect holiday. A long stretch of summer spent tramping through New Zealand’s wilderness; a joyous journey through forests, alps, even swimming with Hector’s dolphins in Southland’s vast Te Waewae Bay.
The isolated West Coast of Stewart Island was the final leg, the Nelson couple drawn by dreams of spotting a kiwi in the wild.
* Desert Island Dump, part three: “Stolen from Talley’s”
* Desert Island Dump, part two: The big haul
* Desert Island Dump, part one: Shipwrecked
But the thrill was short-lived. In the heart of Rakiura National Park, the national icon shares its home with tonnes of plastic rubbish and man-made marine debris.
“It’s just really upsetting,” Jordan says. “I had no idea we had so much waste coming up on to our seashores. It’s so sad. I can’t help thinking of all the wildlife we’ve seen.”
Mason Bay is a mecca for nature lovers and bird watchers, a 14km crescent of sand and an expansive swathe of dunes sweeping back from shore into the island’s forest and peatlands. Wild, extraordinary, and not permanently inhabited since the late 1980s, it is home to more kiwi than Kiwi.
More than 40km from the nearest settlement – Oban has just 400 residents – it can be reached only by hiking, or by plane, a little Cessna 185 that bumps down on the sand at low tide.
But its remoteness has afforded the beach no protection from humanity’s destructive, disposable culture.
Wave after wave pummels the shore, washing up discarded plastic that has swirled into the Southern Ocean from all across the Pacific Rim.
The ghosts of dead fishing gear crunch underfoot. Cracked craypots, frayed ropes entwined with seaweed and buoys wedged in wind-sculpted boulders lie bleached and parched by the sun.
Luminous floats line the bush-sheltered track from the bay to a Department of Conservation hut, strung up like Christmas ornaments to mark the 15-minute route.
Pale blue plastic tubs marked ‘Stolen from Talley’s’ are set at regular intervals on the shore line. The fish bins – used by inshore fishing vessels to transport a catch to processing factories – hold flotsam collected by visitors to the beach.
Metres of blue ribbon laces through the dunes – it is plastic packing tape used to secure bait boxes.
Known officially as abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) – between 500,000 and 1 million tons of marine waste tumbles into the seas from industrial fishing vessels each year.
The soft sand is speckled with every kind of household item – a dust pan, sandals, a marker pen, toothbrushes, bottles, the ring from a barbecue, half a plastic rubbish bin.
Torn sweet packets and sauce bottles come from as far away as Korea, Japan and California.
The shoreline has also caught larger items – a car door, sun bed, and plastic drums – weathered and broken from ocean travel.
Buried in the granules are lumpen blobs. At first glance they could be ambergris – valuable whale vomit used in the making of perfume. But these pebbles are worthless pyroplastics, likely the melted remnants of trash burnt at sea.
Blue, green, purple and yellow shards are scattered as shells. Tiny dots of plastic are as ubiquitous as the island’s biting sandflies, littering each new high tide mark with a fresh rainbow of deadly pollution.
Wet shopping bags – banned in New Zealand in 2019 – slump into the swash like deflated, dying jellyfish.
This is what is visible. But the problem goes deeper – the bulk of pollution is disintegrating, unseen, into the sand.
That’s because plastics don’t break down, they break up, finally becoming microplastics, defined as less than 5mm in diameter, and nanoplastics (less than 0.001mm). These are then ingested by organisms like plankton, sending the particles up the food chain.
The detritus doesn’t surprise Canterbury University environmental chemist Sally Gaw: “The presence of macro and microplastics on remote beaches tells us that plastics are everywhere, that there isn’t anywhere that hasn’t been touched by our love affair with plastic.”
The fragments are everywhere scientists have looked: from the bottom of the deepest ocean trench, to Antarctic ice, the air that we breathe, and even human blood.
Alex Aves, also of Canterbury University, discovered plastic particles in fresh snow from the frozen continent – a moment she describes as “staggering”. She is now analysing samples from remote areas to better understand airborne microplastic.
“Microplastics have been found all throughout human bodies, and we know that the smaller they get, the more damage they can do,” she says.
The problem with plastic
Humans have been using plastics on a rapidly increasing scale since the 1950s. For at least half that time, we’ve known that our addiction to convenience has been fouling the ocean.
The first study examining the amount of near-surface marine plastic debris was published in 2014. It estimated at least 5.25 trillion individual plastic particles weighing roughly 244,000 metric tons were floating in the world’s oceans.
By 2018, microplastics had been found in more than 114 aquatic species, and in 2020, scientists estimated at least 14 million metric tons were resting on the floor of the ocean.
Sustainable Coastlines is building a national litter database. They calculate that for every 1000m2 (quarter acre) of beach, there are 329 items. Three quarters of what the charity collects is plastic.
Most of these products – like food wrappers – are used for just minutes or hours by humans. But they will persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
The scale of the problem captured the attention of the media and made their way into popular culture, with horrifying images of wildlife distressed or killed by debris, footage of five immense, floating trash vortexes, and influencers who disavow consumerism for a zero-waste lifestyle.
But remarkably, global production is accelerating. On current trends, plastic use will nearly double from 2019 across G20 countries by 2050, reaching 451m tonnes each year.
“As we become more aware, so too do polluting industries – around how to find loopholes. For example, they will say: ‘we’re increasing our recycling rates, we are light-weighting’,” says environmental anthropologist and campaigner Trisia Farrelly, of Massey University.
“But all that does is give an excuse to allow for not only continued plastic production, but increased plastic production.”
New Zealand is phasing out some single-use plastics from July, including produce bags, most straws, plates, bowls and cutlery.
By 2025, this will also include polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene food and drink packaging.
Last year, 175 nations agreed to end plastic pollution with a binding UN treaty, which could see a global ban on single-use plastic items, a “polluter pays” scheme, and a tax on new production.
Still under negotiation, it could come into being by the end of 2024.
Ellie Hooper, Greenpeace Aotearoa oceans campaigner, says the treaty – and a separate agreement struck last week to protect the high seas – could make a difference.
But Farrelly warns that industry influence is still at play in the negotiations.
“Countries recently submitted ideas about core elements that could be in the text of the treaty. Some commitments are still too low, and some countries are not particularly interested in ambitious policy like caps on plastic production or removing petro-chem subsidies, or for fossil fuel extraction.”
There is also a growing awareness that plastic pollutes without being littered, through the release of contaminants used in manufacture. These chemicals leach into the environment, air and water, and possibly the food chain.
Gaw points to phthalates, additives that make plastics more flexible and so commonplace in household cleaners, food packaging and cosmetics that they are known as ‘the everywhere chemical’.
Researchers have linked them to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioural issues, autism spectrum disorders, and fertility and reproductive issues.
The European Union and the United States are beginning to restrict and regulate chemicals in this class –and the EU is under particular pressure to phase out PVC and PVC additives.
Now what for the bay?
For close to thirty years, Mike Hilton has nursed the sand dunes of Mason Bay back to health. The screaming, complex westerly winds that bring plastic on the ocean currents too carry an invasive pest.
Marram grass – also planted on the island by farmers to tame the dunes – was smothering native vegetation, like the fiery orange pīngao, until Hilton pioneered a multimillion-dollar eradication programme for the University of Otago and DOC. He’s also gathered a “rich collection” of glass bottles from the beach.
As the ancient ecology – it is the largest dune system in the Southern Hemisphere – restores, the fore dunes will break down and blow away.
But the retreating sand will uncover a fresh environmental problem. For years, regular beach clean-ups were happening on Mason Bay. But sources have told Stuff that up until about 2000 some of the collected trash was buried in the fingers of sand that stretch deep into the mānuka forest.
Although it is aesthetically troubling, Hilton says the debris won’t have an impact on the restoration work.
However, it leaves a headache for DOC – already stretched thin by competing tourism and biodiversity needs on the end-of-the-earth island.
Rakiura operations manager Jennifer Ross says it’s a longstanding issue. “The way the oceanic currents work in the area means it’s constantly in line for all sorts of debris from the Tasman Sea.
“In recent years we’re seeing more smaller pieces of plastic too – the kind that mixes in with the sand is very difficult to collect.
“No-one likes seeing rubbish in our wild places and unfortunately there’s no one simple solution – it’s a global problem.”
DOC also supports clean-ups by the Southern Coastal Charitable Trust, which involve boats and a helicopter to uplift the trash.
For more than a decade these have been funded by Talley’s. They’ll contribute $10,000 to the next collection in July, and staff from the Bluff plant will take part.
Mike Black, Talley’s depot supervisor, says rubbish on Southern beaches comes from as far afield as the Netherlands and even fish cases from South America.
In recent years crews have found “a huge amount” of domestic rubbish, and believe some may have come from an old landfill, exposed at Fox River in 2019 floods.
Fishers don’t discard waste on purpose and bins are tied or securely stored, he said. “But occasionally while on deck, an empty case about to be used might be washed off by a rogue wave. It is not what anyone wants, but it can happen while out in rough sea.”
Around 70% are returned to the companies who own them, and Talley’s repairs or recycles them.