More than 40 people gathered to clear rubbish from the remote beach. (Supplied: Blue Douglas)
Just how bad is plastic waste along the remote and sacred shores of Cape Arnhem?
When 42 residents of nearby Nhulunbuy attempted to clean a 1.5-kilometre stretch of beach strewn with plastic, they put in a combined 300 hours of labour.
The group collected so many bags of rubbish that they had to leave some behind, and some locals say the work has only just begun.
Luke Playford, sea country facilitator with the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, has weighed more than a tonne of rubbish gathered during Sunday’s clean-up.
“With what’s left on the beach, I’m estimating the grand total will be 1,650 kilograms,” he told ABC Radio Darwin‘s Liz Trevaskis.
In June, the ABC reported that fisheries and domestic waste, widely believed to have originated in the Indo-Pacific region, was washing up on the beaches of Cape Arnhem at unprecedented levels.
Researchers believe the amount of waste has doubled in the past decade.
With local ranger groups overwhelmed by the enormity of the clean-up task, and little external support for the remote area, residents have been left with few options but to take the clean-up effort into their own hands.
This plastic debris was recently photographed on a Cape Arnhem beach. (Supplied: Cameron Hines)
Nhulunbuy resident Kylie Tune spearheaded the clean-up after moving to the remote mining town earlier this year.
“I went down to Cape Arnhem to see the world’s most pristine beaches and got the shock of my life.
“Nhulunbuy’s got 3,000 people in it, and the possibility of this community having a big impact on the beaches and reducing the load is really possible.”
The tip of the iceberg?
On the weekend more than 40 people travelled along narrow tracks and sand dunes to haul some of the horizon-filling waste back to Nhulunbuy.
Locals spent seven hours collecting debris before it was driven back to Nhulunbuy. (Supplied: Kylie Tune)
“Given the expanse of the beach we chose, initially people found it a bit daunting, looking off into the distance at an endless line of rubbish,” Mr Playford said.
“We’re seeing things like ropes, nets, baskets and plastic tubs — items that you’d assume were associated with the fishing industry.
“But in addition to that we’re seeing a lot of footwear, children’s toys, toiletry items like shampoo bottles, deodorant.
“Coathangers were a surprisingly prominent feature.”
Despite the enormity of the task, Mr Playford said a sense of satisfaction came over the group as the beach was gradually cleared.
But Ms Tune was concerned the true extent of the problem remained unknown.
“The beaches that we’re cleaning up are the beaches local residents can visit with permits,” she said.
“It looks like the beaches that are being visited by local residents are being cleaned up, but the ones that aren’t being visited are still a mess, so that’s a concern.”
Additionally, currents and tidal flows mean other rubbish may later wash up on the clean shore, undoing some of the group’s work.
More help needed
Both Ms Tune and Mr Playford said outside support would be required if the beaches were to return to their pristine state.
A mere 10 rangers oversee 70 kilometres of coastline within their Indigenous Protected Area, and keeping all of them waste-free is far beyond their capacity.
Even among community groups, Ms Tune said, keeping the beaches clean was “not possible in the long run”.
“Everyone’s very proud with the impact that they did have, but this is an unfinished story,” she said.
“There’s so much more rubbish down there and we need multiple events.”
Mr Playford has begun to investigate the possibility of beach-cleaning machines but has come into two issues, one being whether the machines can navigate remote and sandy locations.
“A lot of them, I think, are too large and and heavy to be able to access the areas we need to be able to get into,” he said.
“We’ve basically got tracks through sand dunes that are very soft and narrow in places.”
Additionally, the ranger group isn’t funded to pay for the machines and the money will have to come from somewhere.
“It’s something we wouldn’t be able to do without some external support,” Mr Playford said.