CSIRO scientists and helpers getting down and dirty with marine debris.

CSIRO scientists and helpers getting down and dirty with marine debris.

CSIRO scientists and helpers getting down and dirty with marine debris.

We’re finding out what the most harmful marine debris is to our ocean’s seabirds, whales, dolphins and turtles. We want to know where it comes from, where we find it and where it goes to when it drifts out into our oceans.

Funded by Shell, the EarthWatch project involved 3,000 school children and CSIRO collecting and analysing debris from more than 200 sites around the country, finding thousands of remnants of our lives from bottles and cans, to light bulbs and fishing line. We even found a refrigerator washed up on an island in the Bass Strait!

We began collecting the rubbish 18 months ago north of Cairns, at 100-kilometre intervals around Australia’s 35,000-kilometre coastline.

It will take another 6-12 months to comprehensively analyse the data but preliminary results are in:

  • We estimate there are 5.2 pieces of marine debris along our coastline for every person in Australia
  • 74 per cent of the marine debris is plastic (bottles, bottle tops for example)
  • The majority is found near major population centres but a lot of it is far from our cities, likely driven by ocean currents

We will be mapping all the cleanup data against ocean currents, to see not only where Australia’s debris comes from, but where it goes. These ‘debris maps’ will be overlaid with wildlife distribution patterns to locate the types of rubbish most dangerous to our marine wildlife.

The marine debris results are part of the National Marine Debris Survey, the first of its scale in the world. CSIRO led the survey as part of TeachWild, a marine debris research and education program developed by Earthwatch Australia in partnership with CSIRO and funding partner Shell.

Find out more about the project.


  1. I recently embarked on a tug delivery trip from Singapore to Adelaide and in travelling at an average speed of 8.5 knots was amazed at seeing so much pollution in the ocean, especially north of the Tropic of Capricorn – diminishing southwards from about Latitude; 22* S, Longitude; 111* E.
    Most pollution and flotsam comprised of plastic bags, plastic bottles and polystyrene, – evidence that ships plying this route definitely still dump their waste at sea.

    1. A few years ago we were staying on the western end of Kangaroo Island in a cabin at Hansens Bay overlooking three fairly small beaches. On the eastern most beach the sand formed a shelf at the back of the beach above the normal high tide and only covered by waves during rough weather. On this was one dead baby seal, large pieces of trawler fishing nets and rope, about 1 cubic metre of drift wood (mostly sawn timber) and plastic, plastic and more plastic – some broken into small pieces and others still as drink bottles etc. All in all very sobering.

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