Des Watson has been on a mission the past year scouring our coastlines for plastic waste, but says he has never seen anything as bad as a little beach just south of Auckland.

The West Coaster set off last January to collect rubbish from beaches, streams and rivers and to raise awareness of pollution.

Plastic collected at Hamilton's Gap on the Awhitu Peninsula, just south of Manukau Harbour near Auckland. Photo / Des Watson
Plastic collected at Hamilton's Gap on the Awhitu Peninsula, just south of Manukau Harbour near Auckland. Photo / Des Watson

He started at Karamea, about 100 kilometres north of his home in Westport, and worked his way south along the West Coast, even helping out with the clean-up effort after the Fox River landfill disaster.

He told the Herald he had seen a lot of pollution, but the worst of it was at a little spot on the Awhitu Peninsula, known as Hamilton's Gap.

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"I've never seen so much rubbish on a beach in my life.

"I've been picking up rubbish from coastlines for a year, I've done the Fox Glacier clean-up, I've seen a lot and this really kind of did something to me."

Tiny pieces of plastic littering the coast south of Auckland. Photo / Des Watson
Tiny pieces of plastic littering the coast south of Auckland. Photo / Des Watson

He spent several days there over the past week - including his birthday - and filled two large black rubbish sacks with tiny pieces of plastic.

"But there's still heaps there, if I wanted to pick it all up I'd be there for the rest of my life."

Des Watson says it is quite confronting seeing the amount of rubbish around the country. Photo / Supplied
Des Watson says it is quite confronting seeing the amount of rubbish around the country. Photo / Supplied

The sheer amount, and tiny small plastic pellets, made Watson think it was coming from industry.

"If people did take their rubbish there, there's no excuse for that, but I've been finding quite a lot of microplastics on the beach, and pellets - raw forms of plastic, that they use before they melt them down."

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He believed the source of it could be from stormwater outlets in Auckland, going into the Manukau Harbour, and potentially from plastic factories.

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"There were literally 100s of 1000s of [plastic pellets] along this coastline, all the way down to Raglan and probably further."

Some of the plastic Des Watson collected at Hamilton's Gap on the Awhitu Peninsula, just south of Manukau Harbour near Auckland. Photo / Des Watson
Some of the plastic Des Watson collected at Hamilton's Gap on the Awhitu Peninsula, just south of Manukau Harbour near Auckland. Photo / Des Watson

He hasn't seen the same issue at other beaches.

"It's a really massive issue - these stormwater drains - you see them transporting millions of pieces out to our waterways and oceans - nothing's really stopping this stuff going down our drains and out to our waterways."

Watson said councils should look into "stormwater socks", which could be placed in drains to prevent plastic from entering waterways.

"It's not possible to put them on them all drains, but at least we can try and do something."

Des Watson has spent a year travelling around the country and said he'd never seen so much plastic waste in one place. Photo / Des Watson
Des Watson has spent a year travelling around the country and said he'd never seen so much plastic waste in one place. Photo / Des Watson

Hayden Smith, founder of charity Seacleaners, agreed the West Coast beaches along the Awhitu Peninsula had a major plastic problem.

"We have been doing a lot of work out there for years, pulled in an enormous quantity of debris."

Due to currents and prevailing winds from the south, Smith believed the waste was likely to have come from further down the coastline rather than the Manukau, potentially from sources like the Waikato River.

"You can't specifically say where it originates from, but every stormwater outlet in the country contributes. Anything that falls on the street, wrapper that flies out of a car, that isn't picked up, could get washed into our rivers, and out to sea.

"With this drought at the moment a lot of this debris is just sitting there, building up, and the next big downpour it'll end up in the ocean."

The obvious solution was for people to reduce their waste, and be proactive.

"Pick up one piece a day, or more, wherever you see it - it is quite simple," Smith said.

Auckland Council healthy waters general manager Craig Mcilroy said while they had measures in the stormwater network, ultimately the problem came back to people littering.

"We urge people to dispose of their litter responsibly and promote the use of more sustainable materials, that don't contain a plastic weave."

Some of the items collected. Photo / Des Watson
Some of the items collected. Photo / Des Watson

The council was looking into new measures to prevent rubbish entering the Manukau Harbour, including using gross pollutant traps as forebays for the Hayman Park Pond.

Watson's mission has taken him around most of the South Island, from Wellington to Wairoa along the east coast of the North Island, before heading across to Raglan and making his way north.

Other hotspots for rubbish included Evans Bay in Wellington, where he found blue penguins nesting in plastic wrappers, and Hawke's Bay beaches where he said people were burning piles of rubbish.

"I almost had a bit of a breakdown in the Hawke's Bay. On one beach every 20 to 30 metres were burn pits, with bits of half-melted plastic all around. It was quite confronting."

He said he didn't like to point the finger, but felt councils across the country needed to do more to enforce the laws against illegal dumping.

To fund his mission, Watson has been picking up casual work along the road. He has also set up a Givealittle page to help cover fuel and dumping costs.

A report released this week estimated New Zealand households were churning through 1.76 billion plastic containers a year, with about 40 per cent of that by weight ending up in landfills.

Last year in a bid to reduce New Zealand's plastic waste, the Government announced bans on a range of single-use items including plastic bags, meat trays, cups and takeaway food containers.

The five worst spots from a year on our coastlines

1. Hamilton's Gap, on the Awhitu Peninsula south of Auckland, littered with "millions" of pieces of plastic, according to Watson.

2. Evans Bay, Wellington, where the harbour's waste was brought by currents and wind, affecting the blue penguin nesting ground.

3. Cobden Beach, Greymouth, where a historic coastal landfill was ripped open by high seas during ex-Cyclone Fehi in 2018.

4. Monkey Island Beach, Southland - "beautiful spot, but heaps of plastic," said Watson.

5. Hawke's Bay beaches, where Watson said he found people had been burning their rubbish, with half-melted plastic in many places.