Do tigers eat plastic? And why does it matter that plastic bags look like jellyfish in the water? We went out to see our partner charity Sustainable Coastlines in action at South Wairarapa school Kuranui College, as they educate Kiwi kids about the simple steps they can take to protect our amazing marine creatures from the dangers of plastic waste.
Generally speaking, there’s nothing cuter than a baby turtle. But for Year 11 students at Kuranui College, there’s nothing cute about the photo of the baby turtle they’re being shown in their geography class.
This baby turtle is dead, with a plastic bag still hanging out of its mouth. When it was autopsied, the turtle had 54 separate pieces of plastic in its stomach – including one still clearly showing branding from a business in Lower Hutt, less than an hour’s drive from Kuranui College.
The turtle was found on Rangitoto Island, near Auckland, by a team from the charity Sustainable Coastlines.
It’s a tough image for anyone to see, but Sustainable Coastlines believes educating young people about the impact of plastic waste is the best way to inspire the next generation of Kiwis to make the lifestyle changes required to help protect marine creatures in the future.
Oliver Vetter, a British oceanographer now working as Sustainable Coastlines’ Wellington Project Manager, says the charity’s presentations tap into young people’s instinctive empathy for animals.
“Kids are in tune with animals and with nature, and they have a natural sense of right and wrong,” says Oliver.
Every year, Oliver and a growing army of specially-trained Sustainable Coastlines ambassadors deliver presentations to a whopping 10,000 young people around New Zealand.
The presentations’ content changes depending on the age of the audience, but Oliver says even children aged five or six can quickly grasp messages about the need to protect nature.
“Once I asked a class to give me an example of something that was natural and grew on trees, and one child said, ‘Monkeys’. Another boy was really worried about tigers eating plastic,” he says.
“Talking to kids keep me positive. When they’re made aware of what’s happening to the planet, they’re really willing to try new things. That gives me optimism.”
Now celebrating its 10th year in operation, Sustainable Coastlines has held more than 500 clean-ups that have removed over 1.3 million litres of litter from our beaches and waterways.
But while Sustainable Coastlines still runs large-scale beach clean-ups and waterway restoration events, it focuses its attention on preventing litter from getting into our oceans and rivers in the first place.
Over the course of Oliver’s half-hour presentation at Kuranui College, the students learn about the dangers of single-use plastics – plastics made to be used once and then thrown away, such as straws, water bottles and plastic bags.
In the ocean, plastic bags look like jellyfish. That’s probably why the baby turtle photographed on Rangitoto Island ate the plastic bag that ended its life.
It’s one of an estimated 100,000 marine animals and one million seabirds killed by rubbish every year.
Stormwater drains are no defence: everything that gets through the grate has a one-way ticket to a stream, and from there to the ocean.
Oliver asks the students to guess how long plastic lasts before it breaks down. The guesses come fast – one hundred years, 5000 years, a billion years.
But the correct answer is that no-one knows, says Oliver. “The first piece of plastic ever made was made around 100 years ago, so it’s still out in the environment somewhere. And we just don’t know how long it will last.”
Toxins from ingested plastics accumulate in fish, with the levels of toxins increasing at each stage of the food chain. And who’s at the top of the food chain? Us.
“We’ve polluted the oceans so badly that we’re polluting the water and food we eat,” says Oliver.
His message to the Year 11 students is simple: recycling just delays the time it takes for plastic to reach the earth. Instead, think about how you can reduce the plastic in your life, particularly single-use plastics.
After the presentation, friends Amelia O’Connell (14), Connor Turton (15), Henry Isaacs (15) and Joji Dell (15) were deep in conversation about what they’d just heard.
Joji said it was good to see how simple changes – like buying a reusable cup for takeaway coffees – could make a big difference to plastic waste, while Connor wanted to know whether politicians could be motivated to make laws to reduce the use of plastics
“People use plastic because it’s easy. If the people in power made it harder to use plastic, things will change,” says Amelia.
“I’ve always thought that one person couldn’t make a difference, but if there are heaps of you working together, you can make a difference.”
“It’s actually not that hard,” says Henry. “Oliver gave us a few solutions, and they just involve changing our lifestyle a little bit.”
Sustainable Coastlines has a simple mission: to enable people to look after the coastlines and waterways they love. Discover how 1% of your income can support Sustainable Coastlines to continue showing Kiwis the practical changes they can make to help protect our oceans.