It’s been raining cats and dogs in Victoria.
We’re leaping puddles, keeping an eye on overflowing water tanks and sighing with relief as Melbourne’s parks and trees slurp up the huge soaking.
But the rain that tumbles into creeks and rivers also floods our waterways with enough rubbish to fill the MCG. In Melbourne alone, three billion pieces of litter – a bag of dog poo someone was too selfish to bin, a rusting battery discarded without a thought, a baby’s dummy fallen unnoticed on the footpath – spill from gutters, down drains and into waterways every year.
The rubbish that collects in our streets is an apt metaphor for consumption gone mad: takeaway cups, plastic lids, half-eaten food and drinks, wrappers, cans, straws, cosmetics, pens, DVDs, car parts, furniture, electronics, polystyrene packaging, plastic wrap, coathangers, hair brushes, building debris, bike parts and jewellery. In fact, almost anything you can name can be found in a gutter or drain near you. And most of what you’ll find will be plastic.
According to Greenpeace, 80 percent of the plastic in our oceans has made its way from land. Scientists estimate that 100 million tonnes of plastic is circulating in the northern Pacific – bottle tops, hair ties, toothbrushes, condoms, big buttons and small – to create a giant plastic stew that is rapidly entering our food chain.
As concerning are reports that even tiny fragments of plastic are capable of soaking up large amounts of chemicals including chlorines, herbicides and pesticides. Plastic that doesn’t break down into microscopic particles or sink to the ocean floor, but rides on currents that eventually end up on giant plastic outposts that have formed in oceans around the world.
While humans can’t seem to live without plastic, many species can’t live with it. The United Nations Environment Program reports that plastic kills more than a million seabirds and more than 100 000 whales, dolphins and seals every year. Our plastic menace can lodge deep in throats, trap an unsuspecting wing, catch in beaks, wedge in intestines and wrap around necks. Most of us will never know that a balloon let fly high to celebrate a twenty-first or to say a final farewell to a loved one ends up stuck like glue in the stomach of a pelican. We are protected from the suffering of a fish that swallowed a carelessly discarded cork from a carefully chosen bottle of wine and free from guilt of the damage done to a whale when it mistakes a plastic bag for dinner.
While we should demand much better management of rubbish from all levels of government – particularly the prevention of it entering our waterways – we must take some responsibility ourselves. Yet, it seems that rubbish is so much a part of our streetscape we hardly notice it, though we walk past it, step over it and sometimes kick it aside. Many gutters are thick with stagnant pools of rubbish. Ironically, some of the most polluted streets are in suburbs where the Merri Creek flows and where people ride bikes, invest in water tanks and solar panels, shop for environmentally friendly products and vote Greens.
A few years ago an enormous storm swelled the Merri Creek metres beyond its normal height. Once the waters receded, fluttering in the branches of trees like large white butterflies, were dozens of plastic bags. That scene has not been repeated, but after heavy rain the rubbish in the creek increases tenfold. I find it discouraging beyond words that a number of drains close to the Merri are often chock-a-block with rubbish.
It’s not easy to understand why we ignore rubbish that’s literally on our doorstep. Perhaps we just accept it as part of modern life or see it as someone else’s problem, or simply feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the changes we need to make and the work that needs to be done.
I remember reading a news story about Australian movie audiences standing and cheering Wall-E, the robot in the animated film of the same name, when he came to clean up Earth after mountains of rubbish had made the planet uninhabitable. Any hope that the film’s message had been heard by a younger generation with more to lose than their parents were dashed by reports that audiences, in one cinema at least, departed leaving the usual sea of litter behind them.
The dumping of rubbish today invites comparisons to the way we once disposed of human waste. The risks may not be as immediately apparent or as hazardous to health as raw sewage, but the potential to create havoc for centuries to come is far greater than the cost of plague every hundred years or so.
We have seen the success of Clean Up Australia Day but a spring-clean once a year simply isn’t enough. If every business made it their business to keep clean the area surrounding their office or shopfront, if every school had zero tolerance for rubbish in and outside their grounds, if every footy team cleaned up their oval after the celebrations or commiserations, if one person in every street in every suburb took responsibility for keeping drains clear of combs, cigarette lighters, and rubber bands, the deaths of many thousands of turtles, platypus and dolphins could be prevented.
If just one-quarter of Australians picked up ten pieces of rubbish each day it would mean that every day 50 million pieces of rubbish could end up in bins rather than spewing into waterways.
We should continue to lobby government and councils to legislate and act against pollution, improve infrastructure that includes litter traps, and conduct public education campaigns. But if we are to rescue our waterways and honour our obligation to future generations we must all take responsibility for rubbish.