Using data to reduce ocean waste
In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Heidi Taylor of Tangaroa Blue, a charity that focusses on cleaning up ocean waste and capturing the related data.
Since 2004, Tangaroa Blue have captured nearly 16 million data points. And with that information, they have been able to provide the evidence that’s often required to drive changes for legislation, as well as business practices – all to reduce the waste that they are finding on beaches around Australia.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Heidi Taylor of Tangaroa Blue.
Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020
This transcript has been modified for clarity.
T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
D: Heidi Taylor, Co-founder and CEO of Tangaroa Blue
T: Heidi, welcome to the show.
H: Thank you so much for having me.
T: I first found out about you and Tangaroa Blue when one of our previous guests, Ricky Gilbey from WAW Handplanes, mentioned that they had done a trial with some of your recovered marine debris. And then you and I met at the National Plastics Summit just a few weeks ago.
H: Yes, exactly right. We’ve been in this space for about 16 years, but it’s always good to be connecting with new people through this network.
T: Tell me more about Tangaroa Blue. What does it do and when did you get started?
H: We started back in 2004 in the southwest corner of Western Australia. We were really small group of concerned individuals that were connected through the ocean. I was a diving instructor and surrounded by people that loved the ocean as fishermen or surfers, or just loved going to the beach. And we were concerned how much plastic was actually washing up within the area of the national park that goes between Dunsborough and down to Augusta. So, we started to do some clean-ups.
H: But it became very clear, very quickly that if all we were going to do was clean it up, then we would have a never-ending job to do. Because the next tide would bring more debris onto the coastline. The decision was made that we needed to collect data to try and find out exactly where this stuff was coming from.
H: We did a big community event. We had 100 people go out to 30 different beaches over one day and collected data on everything that they removed. Then we held a community workshop to try and figure out where some of this stuff was coming from, and what we could do about it. That’s where the concept started. From there, we’ve progressed and expanded across the country. Now we run a national program called the Australian Marine Debris Initiative.
The Australian Marine Debris Initiative
T: Tell us more about that initiative.
H: Take the same concept, that we want to do removal of marine debris, because we immediately improve the health of the environment. But we want to also take that opportunity to collect detailed data on what we’re removing, so we can figure out where this stuff is coming from. Then we engage the right stakeholders to come together and to propose solutions that would prevent those items from being released in the environment in the first place.
H: We have a national network of over 1300 partner organisations that includes Indigenous ranger teams, schools, other community groups and other NGOs, as well as business organisations and government agencies and a whole heap of individual volunteers. They all go out and do regular clean-ups at their site. And submit data that using a standard methodology into the national database so we can use that at different scales to propose solutions.
T: You’ve been doing that since 2004. I imagine you have a lot of data from all the various clean-up sites you’ve had. What are some of the findings so far?
H: We do have a lot of data and the database will most likely kick over 16 million individual data points before June 30 this year. It’s exponentially grown over the last six or seven years for sure. Up to 94% of the debris at a location can be made of plastic. Nationally, the average is around 75%, but in very remote locations, it can be well into the 90s. So, that’s of concern.
H: We also know that when we look at marine debris at a regional scale, the marine debris signature can be very different. What we’re finding in Cape York is completely different to what is washing up on the beaches of Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, for example.
H: We find that there’s not going to be one solution that will solve everything. We need to really look at the marine debris at a regional level so that we can propose those source reduction plans that will work for what they’re finding on their coastlines. And national averages are not really helpful in this context.
T: Are you saying that the marine debris that you’re getting is different in terms of the types of rubbish that you’re finding? Is that also the origin of where you’re finding it, where the plastic has come from as well?
H: Yes, absolutely. So, if we look at Cape York clean-up. Over 90% of the debris that we would pick up in a clean-up there would originating from off-shore sources. We get plastic drink bottles, we get food packaging, we get commercial fishing items. We get things coming from cargo ships. And they can either be lost at sea, off vessels or they can come from ocean currents. And depending on which location on the coast, you’ll find that’s impacted by different currents.
H: And then up in the north, we get extreme weather events like cyclones. And that can dump a whole heap of rubbish from a totally different source than would normally come because of the impact of that weather event.
H: And if we go down to Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, then 99.9% of the debris washed up on a beach there will originate from the catchment. So, it’s either come through the stormwater system, or it’s been left on the beach as litter or along the coastline. And so, the strategies in solving both of those issues will be very, very different because the origins are very different.
T: I can imagine (when you talk about local rubbish versus trash that you’re picking up from other countries) that not only are the strategies going to be different, I would imagine that the people who know this is coming from them, their desire to do something is probably even bigger.
H: Absolutely. But then we also have the capacity of the community. When we look at Port Phillip Bay, you’ll see that there’s council beach rakers that are going up and down the beach on a daily basis in high times and visitation. There are lots of people getting out there walking, picking up rubbish as they go. There’s community clean-up. There’s a lot of effort put into those areas to keep them as clean as it can be.
H: But when you go to a very remote areas, there is very little capacity in some places. There is no community. Or there is no recycling. Or there is no waste management infrastructure to deal with 60, 80,100 kilometres of coastline that, in some cases, has up to one ton of marine debris. Which is just an accumulation over decades. So, the issues and the capacity to deal with those issues is also very different.
National and international rubbish solutions
T: Can you talk about some of the solutions that you’re proposing based on whether it’s a local source of rubbish versus a foreign source of rubbish found here in Australia?
H: The database is made up of about 140 different categories. And we’ve tried to make those categories help in identifying the source. We can also then identify at which scale each of those categories could be worked at. So, if we have a local litter issue, we can work at that, for example, at a local government scale, with community effort and local council effort.
H: In Melbourne, at the moment, we’re working on a project that’s looking at what’s entering the storm water system. And there’s some really clear indications of specific items in specific areas where a local project definitely helps reduce those items.
H: If we look at an industry-wide national or international program, an example of that would be the Operation Clean Sweep program, which we’re working with the plastics industry to reduce the loss of the raw feedstock of plastic, which is plastic resin pellets, also known as nurdles.
H: Those items are being lost during manufacturing and transportation through spills not being cleaned up, or just bad housekeeping. It’s very important for an issue like that to be dealt with at a national level, industry-wide level. And it is something that it affects at an international scale that could be replicated internationally.
H: It’s important that you give people the opportunity to solve problems that they’re actually able to solve. And not try and get a small Indigenous community in Cape York to stop water bottles coming from Indonesia. That would be very difficult and probably not achievable.
H: But the local community can look at those items that are coming onto the coastline, and the local litter issue, and address those. It’s about making it achievable, but also very scalable.
Data driven solutions
T: Can you talk about some of the wins that you’ve been seen since you’ve been putting in these solutions?
H: The first one we ever tried in 2005 was after that very first big clean-up that we did. We identified that there was plastic packing tape washing up along the coastline, and we were able to identify a particular colour and width as coming from the rock lobster industry. They had a particular coloured packing tape that identifies the bait in their bait boxes. We were finding lots of that. We were able to collect some more detailed data to really show where the problem was occurring.
H: Then we engaged the West Australian rock lobster industry and the Department of Fisheries and the Minister of Fisheries to really showcase the extent of this problem. And there was also a solution because in South Australia at the time, they were actually using a self-locking cardboard box. So, they weren’t even needing to use this packing tape.
H: Now, it did take us six years. But after that amount of time, the Minister actually announced the change in legislation in Western Australia, making it illegal to carry this packing tape on any kind of vessel in Western Australia, commercial or recreational fishing.
H: By monitoring the impact of this legislative change, we were actually able to show that that item decreased in the data over the next few years. That was our first big win in showing that this concept of having citizen science data collected and engaging the right stakeholder group, could actually achieve a positive outcome for the environment by putting in a source reduction plan.
T: A huge win there, to get legislation changed to fix this if you couldn’t get the industry to change first. I think there’s a lot of those kind of small changes that make a huge difference – examples that you probably see on a day to day basis.
T: In my mind, I just thought, ‘How can that be such an issue’? I was trying to figure out in my head ‘Why would there be so much of it’? But now it makes a lot of sense, and such a simple change. You’ve been able to make a significant difference to the amount of rubbish you’re probably picking up for that one item specifically.
H: Yes, absolutely. And it shows that there’s not one solution only. It needs to be very strategic.
Citizen scientists make change happen
H: Another example was we identified a particular type of polystyrene foam that we were finding in north Queensland as being part of the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather balloon targets. We were finding these little pieces of foam that were sticky on both sides that were both the same thickness. And they weren’t normally normal packaging items that you would see coming from a cup or a tray or a box. They were very specific.
H: We were actually able to find a complete weather balloon target in one of our clean-ups and realised that these small pieces were actually part of this bigger target that was in the process of breaking up.
H: We tried to collect the data and communicate with the Bureau of Meteorology about making a change in these weather balloon targets because they were releasing up to 100 of these every day from around Australia. And there was no way that they could be retrieved. This was a not only polystyrene, but a massive big rubber balloon and an electronic payload that was attached to it that collects really important weather data, but was creating a littering problem within the environment as well.
H: After a few years of trying to engage with them, we found that the Bureau had actually changed their targets to remove the polystyrene in the target and replace it with a cardboard component. So, while the weather balloon itself is still impacting environment, it’s doing so less now because there’s no more polystyrene. That’s a federal government agency that we were able to influence through data collected by citizen scientists.
Using data to influence change
T: There are a lot of clean-up organisations out there. And of those I’m aware of, you’re the only one that seems to be as data focused.
T: One of the things that we really like to do in this podcast is to focus on the ‘how to.’ I’m really curious to know – when you first got started with this and you realised that the power was in the data, I’m sure collection could have been by hand at the beginning. But surely you would’ve figured out quite quickly that there was too much data to crunch.
T: Can we walk through a pathway of how you actually got started with the data focus? Because it seems to me that that’s one of the key benefits that you offer to any organisation that wants to reduce their plastic rubbish, or any other kind of pollution that might be out in the ocean right now.
H: Look, data is evidence. And evidence is vital if you’re going to make a case to get something changed. And when we look at the data being collected, we’ve heard it from volunteers in the past, in some cases the data collection from a clean-up actually takes longer than the clean-up itself.
H: If you think about picking up a water bottle off the beach and just recording it as a place piece of plastic, that won’t give you enough information to be able to identify how to make a change that would stop it. If you only recorded it as a plastic drink bottle, it doesn’t give you enough information to know what change is needed. Because that bottle could have arrived on the coast from an offshore source, from an international country.
H: It could have come from a passing cargo ship or a fishing boat. It could have been left there as litter or come through a stormwater drain. We even record, with some items like plastic drink bottles, the barcode and the brand, because the barcode will actually give us the country of manufacture.
H: So, we can identify from that whether it was likely to have come from a local source or an offshore source. We really wanted to understand the source. That was exactly the question we wanted to answer.
H: Initially it started with myself recording information from a number of sites on an Excel sheet. And at this first workshop that we held after that initial big clean-up event, we actually got 30 people come along to this workshop that were really interested in this tracking this data.
H: One of those people, a gentleman by the name of Wally Smith, is a bit of a data person, a data geek. And he said, “I really want to help you with this.” And I gave him all of my Excel sheets that I’ve collected. He’s the one that worked with database developers to create the Australian Marine Debris database that you see online today. It has gone through a couple of reviews and upgrades, and as technology changes.
H: We also released a data collection app that feeds into the database a couple of years ago. And we’re always looking at ways of making sure we keep up with technology to make it as easy as possible for volunteers to collect that data. But also making sure that we don’t lose any of that data credibility and that robustness of the data that’s actually being collected.
T: We all need a Wally in our organisation, don’t we?
How do they use the rubbish?
T: Once you collect all this rubbish, there’s obviously going to be a lot of it. What do you do with it afterwards?
H: That’s always a challenge. And the more remote you go, the more of a challenge it actually is. So, we try and utilise existing recycling systems wherever we can. There’s always going to be a component that’s not recyclable that we need to put to landfill in remote locations.
H: We separate all the hard plastics that we have. And we actually use a network of partners who can bring that back out in these one tonne bulker bags. We bring that out of Cape York so that it doesn’t just go into a landfill that’s going to get burned or buried. And we look for innovation and partners that can use it for recycling.
H: In fact, we sell bags of rubbish. We pull out items that might be of interest to artists or schools who would like to make artwork out of it. And we sell a bag of toothbrushes or a bag of cigarette lighters. It’s amazing, actually, how many of these bags of ‘art supplies’, as we call them, actually get sold.
T: Heidi, I want to learn more about you. I know that you’re a co-founder of Tangaroa Blue, and I know you’ve been heavily involved in ocean clean-up and marine debris for a very long time. I really want to know, how did you get started on this? Because a lot of people will do some clean-up and things like this. But you’ve been in it for quite a long time.
H: I guess I’ve always felt very connected to being out in nature. Ever since I was a kid, I always loved being out in the bush or in the beach. I love the energy that I get from being in the environment. And living in the southwest of WA at the time, and teaching diving there, it’s such a an amazingly beautiful place. The water colour there is this most amazing aqua colour. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.
H: To see it being impacted by the stuff that was washing out of the ocean. I’d always done clean-ups as a kid, and my Mum was recycling before recycling was a thing. But I felt that nobody had really addressed or had acknowledged that plastics in our environment – and particularly in the marine environment – was actually an issue.
H: It probably wasn’t on anybody’s radar in the way it is now, back then. And I just felt it needed to be addressed because I make my living out of the ocean, and I was teaching people diving. I was taking them out to learn how to dive and to appreciate the environment.
H: I just felt that something needed to happen, and it wasn’t on anybody’s radar. And I thought, ‘Well, you know, there’s no reason why I can’t do something.’ So, off we started.
T: Well, you started and you’re still going. It’s pretty amazing to see what you have achieved so far.
H: I would never have thought of where we are today, back then. Oh, my goodness.
Multiple streams of income
T: Going from a little clean-up to a nationwide program, how are you actually funded right now? I did a little bit of research, and I could tell that you’ve been successful on winning some pretty decent sized grants. Is that your major form of funding right now?
H: We try and diversify our income stream. Because as a charity, you can’t be reliant on one. We do apply for government grants.
H: We did win a competitive tender process through the federal government last year for a five-year marine debris project across the Great Barrier Reef. So, that’s our major funding source at the moment. It was a very different process to submit a tender than it was for a grant. The way that runs is a different world. It was a very steep learning curve for us to go through that process.
H: We are also a registered charity. We do receive public donations and have a few philanthropic organisations that really love what we do and support us on an ongoing basis that way. And we even sell bags of rubbish to artists.
H: We really try and diversify the funding streams to make sure that we have a good solid base to continue our work moving forward.
T: Which is a smart move for any not for profit or charity in these trialling times.
Impact of COVID-19 on Tangaroa Blue
T: I know that you’re an event focused organisation as you do all these clean-ups. Right now, as we’re speaking, Australia’s going into more restrictive prevention measures for COVID-19. I think we’re just a couple of days away from a pure lockdown of sorts. How’s that been impacting your organisation so far?
H: It’s a really fluid situation. What we were able to do last week, we can’t do this week. Who knows what’s going to happen next week? We’re staying completely abreast of all of the advice and really doing best practise. What we’ve initially done is to reduce our numbers at clean-up. We’ve closed the clean-up events that we had on our schedule to volunteers.
H: And some of our events are small monitoring sites which can be done by one or two people. We’re trying to continue to do as many of those as we can, just with our core staff without bringing groups of people together to conduct those.
H: Cape York, for example, has just gone into lockdown, so we won’t have our first clean-up scheduled up there until the end of May. That’s actually on a ‘watch and see’ list at the moment. It depends on exactly how long these things happen before we can start getting back into inviting volunteers.
H: But for those kind of events, they’ll be postponed as long as they need to. We don’t want to create other issues in communities, especially up in remote areas, by bringing volunteers from other parts of Australia up. The potential to create a bigger problem would exist in that framework.
H: We just have triaged all our calendar events and seen which ones we can do with just our whole staff in a very small number of people, which ones can be postponed for later on into the year. And what we can actually do to transition our workshops, our presentations, our education to a digital platform. We will continue to do as much as we can in a safe way. But like everybody, we’re definitely being impacted by the current situation.
T: I know there are a lot of charities are struggling if they’re dependent on donations. It’s good that you have other funding that you can rely on right now in this difficult time. We don’t know how long it’s going to last, and certainly the work you do is important to be done.
Unfortunate move back to single-use plastic
T: The other thing I’ve noticed is that because everybody is so concerned about the spreading of diseases right now, there seems to be a heavy shift going right back to single use plastic – though for good reason at the moment. But does that concern you at all?
H: Yes, it does. I think in some cases the jump from one extreme to the other can be done because of a fear, or someone being scared about not being able to transition. But having to go from one extreme to another, I think that in a lot of cases, if things are done safely, then we don’t need to go back to single-use plastics.
H: We can actually take out our reusable shopping bags, and we can put them in the washing machine every time we go to the supermarket and be absolutely fine. We should be washing our reusables. If we go and take a single use plastic bag, we don’t actually know if someone else’s coughed or spluttered on it or who’s handled it.
H: In some cases, it can be safer to use our own items because we know that we have cleaned them and we’re the only one that’s been touching them. I would just kind of erred on the side of caution or maybe everyone’s going too crazy. To say, “Okay, in some cases it might be safer to use something that is more single use.” But in a lot of the other cases it might be safer, because we actually know the cleanliness of an item that we’re handling and using.
T: Yes, some good points there. For me, I’m hoping that the damage isn’t done – where this idea that ‘single use plastic is always going to be a safer bet’ is a long term thought rather than just short term while we’re going through this immediate crisis. And, therefore all the work that you and so many other organisations have spent time and energy on, trying to get people to move away from it, are undone so quickly.
Opportunities for innovation during this crisis
H: I think there’s a really good opportunity for innovation in this space, too. It’s not that the single-use plastic is any safer. It’s ‘What process can we put in place to make whatever we’re using safer?’ And that may take time.
H: There’s opportunities to have UV sterilisation type of technologies that can be modified for other uses. And maybe that’s a really good opportunity to continue moving away from single use plastics where it’s not needed without having to be fearful of our health as well – to get that safety technology working and innovation working so that we can make our items safer.
T: And once again, some good ideas there. I hope that someone’s listening will pick that up.
How to help with clean-ups and maintain your mental health
T: So, when we’re talking about future plans right now, there’s obviously a lot of things that you can’t control for the moment. But surely in your forward planning, you have some future plans. Are there any you want to share with us?
H: Absolutely I think it’s really important for people, right now, today, next week, who are feeling that they are either in isolation or isolated from their networks, to remember to stay connected with nature. We can go out jn most cases, unless you’ve been told to stay indoors for the 14 days.
H: In most cases we can go out and go for a walk on our own, safely. Or with our partner or with our small family groups. Stay connected and we’ve said to people, “You know, you don’t have to be part of a big clean-up effort,” because obviously those have all been put underneath a restriction of the number of people. But you can go out and do something yourself.
H: For us, to really showcase that there’s a whole heap of resources out there where people can go and download our data app. They can go for a walk on the beach on their own or go for a walk next to the river on their own. Stay connected to nature. They can still do their own mini clean-up. They can still log their data and they can still stay connected with a network.
H: That’s really important, not only to continue the work for the environment because it definitely still needs it, but also to maintain our own mental health as well. Because being locked up and feeling like you’re isolated from everything is going to impact people and their mental health. So, how can we use what we’re still able to do in a really positive way to address a bit of that as well?
How you and your kids can get involved
T: It’s such good advice for our listeners. And if they wanted to do their own clean-up, how can we find out more information about your app in terms of recording the data? And there’s probably additional safety measures that they might want to use if we hadn’t already had it in place before. Where can they find out more information about doing these types of things?
H: By going to the tangaroablue.org website, there’s a tab under at the top that says ‘Resources’. Everything you could possibly need can be downloaded there. We have a few ‘how to’ videos. A couple of them show you about collecting the data. We have a ‘how to’ video on how to use the app.
H: And we also have an education kit. For those parents that are dealing with children at home, we have a full lesson plan for three different levels of schooling that might be useful for them for that. There is a heap of fact sheets, identification manuals you can download – pretty much everything that you need to get started or to be involved, you can download.
H: We have our database team that are available via email or by phone. So, if you get stuck with something, or you’re not quite sure, you can just flick us an email and be connected with one of the data team and they can walk you through that process as well.
T: Outstanding. You just gave parents another reason to get them outside.
H: Absolutely. And they can do it clean-up in their backyard if they’re not allowed to go outside at the moment. They can even do a pretend clean-up around their house. And that gives them this skill that, when it is safe for them to get outside or go to the local beach again, they know how to do the data collection. It’s an opportunity to upskill and learn and really use this opportunity as a positive rather than a negative.
T: Heidi I love your enthusiasm, and I love your optimism in terms of trying to find opportunities in these really challenging times. Thank you for your time today. You’ve done so much in this space since 2004 when you decided to get involved with a small little clean-up.
T: And even today, you’re still trying to figure out ways to innovate, and find new solutions for using data to convince people and businesses and governments that what they need to do is, well, actually, I have a quote from you from another article that I found, and it said, “If we only invest effort in a beach clean-ups, the problem will never go away.”
T: I can see all your programs are really, really focused on that. Thanks for all you do and what your team does at Tangaroa Blue. And I’m looking forward to hearing more about some of your programs in the future.
H: Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to the listeners and to let them know about Tangaroa Blue, and how they can volunteer. We are all in this together and it’s for all environmental situations as well as what we’re all currently facing right now. Very excited to see if we can recruit a few more volunteers from this as well.
T: There you go. Cheers, Heidi.
H: Thank you.