‘Small’ problem, huge impacts



North Shore Living is taking a deep dive into one of the world’s most pressing issues, happening right now below the surface of our harbour. 

Plastic pollution is a worldwide issue, affecting the environment, wildlife, and humans, but most people will never witness firsthand the destruction and damage which can be caused by a single piece of plastic underwater. 

People don’t need to live next door to the water to have a detrimental impact on environment, and to also be impacted by plastic themselves.  

Somebody who knows firsthand what happens below the surface is Captain Dean Cropp, who last year broke a record for a 24-hour clean-up of Sydney Harbour. 

“I knew that it [the clean-up] would sustain 24 hours. Actually, I could probably do a month worth of 24-hour dives and still only make a dent in it,” Dean says.

“Unfortunately, it’s a continuous problem in Sydney Harbour.” 

Captain Dean says he finds ‘lots of strange things’ on his dives to recover pollutants from the waters, with most being single use plastics including bags, cups, bottles and cans.  

“I came across a whole role of caution tapes. I’ve found plenty of phones. Lots of disposable vapes is the latest thing we’re finding, which is very bad because they’ve got all kinds of chemicals and a battery in them,” he explains.

“The other odd thing we find is parking tickets. Finding parking tickets is how we know that the problem isn’t isolated to the area we are finding the rubbish in.” 

He says the pollution isn’t coming from boats on the harbour or isn’t necessarily coming from people who attend North Shore beaches, but rather anywhere on land around Sydney. 

He explains that due to weather conditions, rubbish from across the Sydney basin will end up in the water.  

“All drains lead to the ocean,” he says.

“A lot of it never gets seen, it just sinks to the bottom and becomes part of the harbour and slowly degrades and falls apart, turning into microplastics.”

Dr Michelle Blewitt, project director at AUSMAP Australia, says many people are unaware of microplastics and the devastation they wreak on their everlasting journey. 

AUSMAP, or the Australian Microplastic Assessment Project, is one of the longest running environmental projects in Australia. The team conduct research to identify where there are microplastic hotspots across Australia and their origins. 

Many red zones with high amounts of microplastics feature on Sydney’s lower North Shore. 

This includes Berry Island Beach, which records 784 pieces of microplastics per square metre; Whiting Beach, in Cremorne, which holds 792 per square metre; and Athol Beach, Mosman, with 879 per square metre.

“My saying is that the problem is ‘smaller’ than you think,” Dr Blewitt says. 

“It’s the small stuff that gets through and then has the implications of being ingested by our critters. The plastics then make their way up through the food network and the trophy level transfer them up the food chain to us.”

Dr Blewitt says that people are under the impression that plastic will eventually disappear or fully degrade, which is not the case. 

She explains it will ‘never go away’, but simply keep breaking down into smaller pieces of plastic and that people need to be more aware. 

With increasing plastic pollution AUSMAP reported that approximately 12 million metric tons of plastic is leaking into our oceans annually, and of the numerous recognised impacts to wildlife from marine litter, over 70% can be attributed to microplastics.

Ocean Protect is a Sydney-based company developing innovative and site-specific solutions that manage the impact of stormwater runoff on the built environment, with a zero-plastic goal for 2040. 

The company has captured a total of 13,336,665kg of plastic to date, stopping 7,284kg of pollution from entering our waterways, including our famous harbour, each day. 

Principal environmental engineer, Brad Dalrymple, says there are severe implications if plastic keeps being ploughed into the sea via the harbour at the currently alarming rate. 

“The survival of the human species is actually dependent on the health of our oceans,” Mr Dalrymple says.

He says while this is a big problem, it is one we can solve and prevent from worsening as ‘we have the knowledge and technologies’ to do so.

“It’s almost an obligation to do that, effectively and quickly, not just to protect our ecosystems and wildlife, but to fundamentally to protect us as a human race,” Mr Dalrymple says.

A North Sydney Council spokesperson told North Shore Living the council is currently operating 26 gross pollutant traps, which remove much of the waste from the drains. 

They said the council is also constantly looking for ways to minimise litter by monitoring bin collection frequency, to determine if and where more bins may be needed.

“Slowly, slowly, we will turn the tide backwards back against itself and eventually get on top of this, if everyone pitches in helps and does their bit,” summarises Captain Cropp.

Jess Clarke, Journalist, North Shore Living Magazine

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