Cleaning up the plastic 'plague'

Fighting the plastic 'plague' in Newcastle's streets and on the water


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HAUL: Rusty Cherkas with the thousands of plastic cable ties he has collected during his walks around the city since May. Picture: Marina Neil

HAUL: Rusty Cherkas with the thousands of plastic cable ties he has collected during his walks around the city since May. Picture: Marina Neil

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Two men are waging a war against plastic waste on different fronts, and they want us all to do our bit.

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WHEN most people go for a daily walk, they are seeking moments of beauty and relaxation.

What Rusty Cherkas looks for is ugliness and waste.

Since May, the Cooks Hill resident of Newcastle, NSW, has been walking the walk in his own fight against plastic pollution, collecting discarded cable ties in the city.

"An hour-long outing on foot is always good for finding a few, and sometimes the quantity found has been staggering," Mr Cherkas says.

In just a few months, the retired software developer has amassed a huge collection of cable ties. He estimates he has about 5000 pieces.

He picks up a large "bouquet" of ties.

"These are from just one outing," Mr Cherkas says.

As he surveys the mound of plastic in front of him, he says, "I'm not surprised, I'm disappointed".

Rusty Cherkas' collecting mission began in the wake of the federal election in May. As he walked past what had been a polling station, Mr Cherkas noticed the candidates' posters were gone, but many cable ties had been left on the fence or on the ground.

He found that infuriatingly ironic, asserting political parties often push their environmental credentials. He picked up the cable ties and resolved to collect any more he saw on his daily walks.

MISSION: Rusty Cherkas picks up a plastic cable tie near Honeysuckle Drive, by the harbour, during his daily walk. Picture: Marina Neil

MISSION: Rusty Cherkas picks up a plastic cable tie near Honeysuckle Drive, by the harbour, during his daily walk. Picture: Marina Neil

The plastic cable tie may be a quick and cheap fastening item, but Rusty Cherkas says what he hadn't noticed before was just how many of them were abandoned on fences and poles, or had been cut down and thrown away, becoming plastic pollution, potentially washing down the gutters and into the waterways.

Suddenly, Mr Cherkas was seeing bits of plastic all over town. He was picking up discarded and broken cable ties outside construction sites, off the road and out of the gutters, and in Civic Park after markets.

"I was collecting so much material, I thought, 'This is not right!'," he says.

To illustrate his point, Rusty Cherkas guides the Newcastle Herald on a one-hour walking tour in the city's west and past the Honeysuckle developments.

Another piece of a cable tie found near Honeysuckle Drive. Picture: Scott Bevan

Another piece of a cable tie found near Honeysuckle Drive. Picture: Scott Bevan

In that time, he picks up 12 cable ties - and four drinking straws. He would have collected more, if he could have reached other cable ties he saw.

Along Honeysuckle Drive, on the other side of a fence covered with a NSW government banner proclaiming the creation of "A New Waterfront Promenade For People To Enjoy", he spots eight discarded cable ties.

"It's very frustrating! I can see them but I can't do anything about it," Mr Cherkas says. "And there'd be more of them."

Rusty Cherkas believes with the number of construction sites around town, there are a lot of promotional and advertising hoardings, often attached with cable ties. And that can lead to more plastic pollution.

The plastic haul from an hour's walk in Newcastle West. Picture: Scott Bevan

The plastic haul from an hour's walk in Newcastle West. Picture: Scott Bevan

Outside a Newcastle West construction site, he picks up a couple of cable ties, before he turns his attention to the fence.

"Look at this! Abandoned, abandoned!," Mr Cherkas says, pointing out four cable ties hanging from the fence.

He occasionally approaches workers to talk about the issue, and he has contacted local and state government representatives, even delivering a "bouquet" of cable ties to the office of the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation.

But he wonders if anyone is listening.

"The general population doesn't seem to think any of this makes a difference," he says.

Rusty Cherkas with the cable ties he has collected around Newcastle's CBD since May. Picture: Marina Neil

Rusty Cherkas with the cable ties he has collected around Newcastle's CBD since May. Picture: Marina Neil

Rusty Cherkas is trying to make a difference.

In just an hour, he has a dozen more ties for his collection. As to what he intends to do with all this plastic, he replies, "Make a sculpture, something classical, or maybe a dolphin or a shark that says 'fish killer'."

Once he makes his sculpture from cable ties, Mr Cherkas says he will "give it to the government, present it to the Minister for the Environment, because we're not taking any action".

"I don't mind the role of plastics, it is the 21st century," Mr Cherkas says. "But recycle it, take care of it, and use it properly."

CLEAN-UP KAYAKER: Michael Gormly fishes a plastic bag out of Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

CLEAN-UP KAYAKER: Michael Gormly fishes a plastic bag out of Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

The local war against plastic waste is being waged on another front.

Retired graphic designer and journalist Michael Gormly is pushing back against the tide of plastic, from the water.

For the Islington resident, Throsby Creek has been flowing through his daily life. In November, Mr Gormly bought a kayak to explore the creek. But he was confronted by what he saw from the kayak.

His paddling was punctuated by plastic junk bobbing on the surface, floating just under the water and strewn along the banks.

"I just couldn't not see the plastic," Mr Gormly says.

"Every bit of plastic has got the potential to kill a fish or a bird, so it's doing no good. And it's also leaking the BPAs [bisphenol, an industrial chemical] into the water. And it's ugly."

Michael Gormly's paddling voyages down the creek turned into daily garbage collection runs last summer.

Michael Gormly scooping plastic rubbish out of Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

Michael Gormly scooping plastic rubbish out of Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

On one day in February, he collected so much plastic so quickly in just a few hundred metres, he paddled back to Islington, unloaded the first haul, then headed out again to fish out more rubbish.

"It sometimes depresses me, the endless supply of waste, and people's carelessness," he says.

More than collect the rubbish, Michael Gormly has photographed each day's haul, which he has posted online. He also published many images in a small book, titled Our plague of plastic.

A society's wasteful ways has been literally laid out for all to see, from drink containers and syringes to plastic wrappers and bags.

"When you see it laid out in a photograph, it's a bit of a shock," Mr Gormly says.

Michael Gormly on Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

Michael Gormly on Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

"When you walk or ride past the creek, you don't see much of it, because a lot of it is just under the water."

Michael Gormly has returned to the water this week, with the Newcastle Herald joining the kayaker for his first pollution fishing expedition of the season.

This voyage is barely more than a kilometre in length, from the TAFE campus at Tighes Hill to just downstream from the Lewis Street bridge and back. Yet Michael Gormly collects a cargo of rubbish.

"There's no lack when you start looking," he says.

He uses a boat hook to catch plastic bags floating under the surface and untangles more snaggled around the mangroves' branches.

"You don't see this a lot now," he says as he collects a couple of grey shopping bags. "They really started to taper off when the supermarkets stopped giving them away."

Michael Gormly fishes a plastic washing basket out of the mangroves along Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

Michael Gormly fishes a plastic washing basket out of the mangroves along Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

He grabs disposable coffee cup lids, barricade tape, a couple of reusable shopping bags, drink containers, and, lodged into the mangroves under the Islington Park footbridge, a washing basket.

Rusty Cherkas will be pleased to know that his fellow waste warrior doesn't find many cable ties in the water, but he collects just about everything else: "It's consumer packaging waste that's by far the biggest."

Michael Gormly's clean-up voyages have been observed.

Graham, who lives by the creek at Tighes Hill, calls him over to the bank and gives him a bottle of wine.

"I understand what you're doing, and I appreciate what you're doing," Graham tells the kayaker.

"He's got a hell of a task in front of him," Graham says.

Graham, a Tighes Hill resident, hands Michael Gormly a 'thank you' bottle of wine. Picture: Scott Bevan

Graham, a Tighes Hill resident, hands Michael Gormly a 'thank you' bottle of wine. Picture: Scott Bevan

The pollution flowing into Throsby Creek comes from far and wide.

Hunter Water, which manages the section of creek we have been paddling, owns about 50 kilometres of pipes, culverts and channels in the catchment.

A Hunter Water spokesperson says it has devices to remove rubbish and debris, including gross pollutant traps and "trash racks".

Three new trash racks have been installed in Styx Creek, which flows into Throsby Creek, near Islington.

Michael Gormly drags some bubble wrap plastic out of the creek. Picture: Scott Bevan

Michael Gormly drags some bubble wrap plastic out of the creek. Picture: Scott Bevan

"All of the agencies, as well as members of the community, have a role to play in mitigating pollution in the creek," the spokesperson says.

To prevent rubbish from reaching local waterways, City of Newcastle says it has gross pollutant traps on key stormwater inlets.

A spokesperson has pointed out the city has a range of plastic waste reduction and education programs.

"City of Newcastle has endorsed the UN Environment Clean Seas campaign to phase out all single-use plastic from city-managed enterprises, activities and events on city land by 2020," the spokesman says.

Michael Gormly's haul from a couple of hours paddling on a section of Throsby Creek this week. Picture: Scott Bevan

Michael Gormly's haul from a couple of hours paddling on a section of Throsby Creek this week. Picture: Scott Bevan

"This includes plastic straws, balloons, promotional paraphernalia, plastic signage and single-use water bottles."

By the end of his two-hour paddle, Michael Gormly has collected enough rubbish to fill the retrieved washing basket, along with quite a few nooks and crannies on his kayak.

"It's a relatively small haul, but a good one," Mr Gormly says, as he tips the rubbish out on his front steps to take a photograph.

Michael Gormly grabs another piece of plastic out of Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

Michael Gormly grabs another piece of plastic out of Throsby Creek. Picture: Marina Neil

Michael Gormly believes that more needs to be done by not just the authorities, but everyone, to keep plastic out of waterways.

Until that is done, he says, the plague of plastic continues to poison the creek and infects everyone's lives.

"It's spreading everywhere, like a plague," Michael Gormly says.

"It's killing things, like a plague. And it's out of control, like a plague. And yet we can probably inoculate against it, if we had the will, the political will.

"It's something we can all do."

Read more: How Throsby Creek is being gradually brought back to life

Newcastle Herald

The story Cleaning up the plastic 'plague' first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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