Pacific communities embrace Litter Intelligence | Sustainable Coastlines

Back in 2021, in a move that rang true with the team at Sustainable Coastlines, organisers of World Ocean Day decided to drop the ‘S’ from ‘oceans’. The reason? What we have categorised as distinct bodies of water is in reality a single ocean. This means that our actions to protect it are taken as part of a global community, acknowledging a shared climate and a shared future.

With the celebration coming around soon, on 8 June, we’re again reflecting on this, and what it means for us as a local charity working on the global problem of litter and plastic pollution. Tackling it here in Aotearoa New Zealand has implications beyond our shores. It’s true that if we clean up our act at home there will be less plastic flowing to the global ‘pool’ of ocean plastic. But more than that, homegrown solutions have the potential to build on positive change overseas, and we are privileged to have been invited to share the Litter Intelligence programme with communities in the Pacific.

For the last couple of years, we’ve collaborated with the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, also known as SPREP, delivering online Litter Intelligence training to enable communities to run litter surveys in Fiji, Wallis and Futuna, Samoa, Vanuatu, and Tonga. Based on the success of the initial pilot, the French Development Agency has provided funding to deliver in-person workshops, which will enable community groups, as well as local and central government staff, to run Litter Intelligence surveys and audits.

“The Litter Intelligence programme has great international standing and is seen as a best-practice tool for community engagement in litter monitoring and waste reduction action. We feel honoured to be invited to deliver training to community groups and government agencies across the Pacific,” says Sustainable Coastlines CEO Josh Borthwick.

Citizen scientists sweep the beach for litter, University of South Pacific foreshore, Suva, Fiji.

Waste, plastic pollution in particular, poses a significant threat to Pacific Island nations, impacting food security, livelihoods, and the health of ecosystems themselves. Setoa Apo, the principal waste management officer of Samoa’s Environment Ministry, notes the role that litter data has to play in solving these problems.

“Plastic pollution — marine pollution — is a fast-emerging environmental issue right now. That’s why we are trying to collect whatever is on the coast here at Vaiusu so that we can audit it, and then give the information to the community and share it with the regions,” says Apo.

So far, Sustainable Coastlines staff have had the privilege of running workshops in the Solomon Islands and Fiji, and have plans to do the same in Vanuatu, Samoa, and Tonga in June and July this year.

While the litter data returned from some of the initial surveys in the Solomons and Fiji show a high litter density, Sustainable Coastlines’ data and insights analyst, Carla Fonseca-Paris notes that we can’t draw conclusions about the nature of the litter problem there until we have a number of repeat surveys and a wider distribution of sites.

“We don’t know how long it took for the litter from the first survey to accumulate there. In three months, when the community undertakes another survey, we’ll have information around what’s accumulated at the beach in that period. Subsequent surveys will provide more data, allowing us to analyse litter accumulation rates, which will help paint a picture of the litter problem.”

Citizen scientists measure out the survey area, Solomon Islands.

Caitlyn Prince, one of Sustainable Coastlines’ engagement facilitators, helped to coordinate the workshops in Fiji. She was struck by the contrast between Fiji’s beautiful environment and the litter present.

“The amount of plastic pollution finding its way to the coastline of Viti Levu [Fiji’s main island] and surrounding islands is an issue that needs action,” says Caitlyn.

“I expect it’s a similar story all across the globe, so it’s really encouraging to work alongside people who are working towards solutions.”

Community members at the new survey site, Solomon Islands.

On our visits to both the Solomon Islands and Fiji, the Sustainable Coastlines team observed that much of the litter looked to be related to drinks packaging, and the first surveys appear to back this up. In Fiji, the results from two surveys show that aluminium cans made up 4.5% of the total litter collected, with bottles under two litres making up 1.9%. Drinks packaging also looks to be a large contributor to the litter present in the Solomon Islands survey sites. The seven surveys completed showed that aluminium cans made up 12% of all litter collected, and bottles under two litres, 23%.

As mentioned, more data is needed for a full understanding of the litter affecting these coastlines and where it’s coming from. But once communities have a statistically significant number of surveys under their belts, data like this could potentially point policymakers to focus on things like safe and accessible drinking water, for both human health and the health of the environment, alongside other infrastructure measures they might consider to tackle the waste problems.

Litter being categorised by citizen scientists, Suva, Fiji.

Marine litter is a complex, global problem. While some litter is mismanaged waste that leaks to the ocean, ocean currents also convey litter to coastlines, with different accumulations depending purely on where the coastline is situated.

Overall, the workshops undertaken so far in the Pacific are a cause for optimism about the future of waste and community-led action in the Pacific. Ben Knight, our community engagement director, ran some of the Solomons workshops and noted that there were already plenty of local groups formed to combat litter and plastic pollution, such as Plasticwise Gizo.

“There was also a lot of support for the idea of measuring the problem in order to influence decision-making around solutions,” noted Ben. “This is the idea behind Litter Intelligence, so it’s great to be able to support these communities with training and a platform with which to do this.”

Caitlyn (right), celebrating the survey effort with members of the Pacific Ocean Litter Youth Project.

Similarly, Caitlyn was inspired by the strength and motivation she encountered in local groups in Fiji, particularly Suzanne from the Pacific Ocean Litter Youth Project and Andrew Paris from Blue Prosperity Fiji. “I came away with gratitude and motivation to be as dedicated and compassionate as they are in the fight against plastic pollution.”

Caitlyn’s main takeaway from her experience in Fiji is a great reminder for all of us who love the ocean and want to protect it.

“All of our small actions are a part of a global movement to halt plastic consumption and pollution. There are so many people showing up to positively influence our future, and meeting some of them affirmed for me why it’s so important to keep doing whatever we can to add to this global movement.”


World Ocean Day is on 8 June 2023.

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A year to the day after it was announced, the government announced the deferral of the Container Return Scheme (CRS). Josh Borthwick, CEO of charity Sustainable Coastlines, says this news is disappointing given the huge public support for the programme and the potential it has to change the way we think about and deal with waste in Aotearoa.

In March 2022, the government announced the CRS as part of a proposal to overhaul current recycling and waste management, which also included standardising recycling across Aotearoa and food waste collections for business.

At the time, Sustainable Coastlines reported that 7.7% of litter items surveyed through their litter database, Litter Intelligence, were related to the items proposed in the deposit scheme.

A fizzy-drink bottle in a pile of collected litter at a Sustainable Coastlines clean-up

“That’s a pretty significant proportion,” says Borthwick. “That percentage is all room for improvement, and the government’s container return scheme is well-positioned to address it. We saw this as a big win for our environment.”

Litter on our coastlines does not just result from people littering and items washing up on the beach, but as Borthwick explains, is often a result of ‘leakage’.

“This is when rubbish escapes our bins due to wind or during collection, and makes its way down stormwater drains to our coastlines. Well-intentioned recyclers like you and me still end up polluting our beaches. A well-designed return scheme would significantly reduce the litter reaching our environment, as well as incentivising people to pick up containers when they find them in the environment.”

Litter data being recorded on the remote Fiordland coast

Revisiting the data after the announcement of the deferral, Sustainable Coastlines’ insights and impacts analyst, Carla Fonseca Paris, notes that 32,828 pieces of drinks-related litter have been collected since the inception of the Litter Intelligence programme in 2018. This includes plastic bottles, glass bottles, cans, lids and pull-tabs, and bottle neck rings.

“Since we looked at the data last year, citizen scientists have collected 8,798 more of these drinks-related items, and that’s just what was found in our 311 survey areas. As of 15 March, these items make up 7.9% of our total litter,” says Fonseca Paris.

While not a statistically significant increase, this indicates the problem is not getting better on its own. Sustainable Coastlines encourages people to take action as individuals, but emphasises the power of business and government to make wider changes.

At a litter survey in 2021, the Sustainable Coastlines team found plastic bottles at a rate 30 times the national average

The charity recently announced its goal to see 60% less litter on the coastlines of Aotearoa by 2030, and views litter data collected through its Litter Intelligence programme as a key way to achieve that.

“Data collected by citizen scientists concerned about the state of their local beach has informed government reporting and policy on litter. That’s a huge win for the people that care about our coasts,” says Borthwick, referring to the government’s ban on problem plastics that is currently being phased in.

“We know the government supports this mahi, and we hope to see the Container Return Scheme reprioritised in the near future.”

While the charity’s waste-reduction priorities are ‘refuse, reduce, and reuse’, recycling still has an important role to play. “It definitely has its place,” says Borthwick, “A functioning recycling system will make a big difference to our waste problem, but a circular economy with reusable containers is where we should eventually aim.”

The CRS has significant public support, with 91% of submissions supporting the scheme, and would represent a step towards redesigning how we deal with waste in Aotearoa.

Litter Intelligence
Run by Sustainable Coastlines, Litter Intelligence is Aotearoa’s first national litter database. It enables citizen scientists to collect litter data suitable for reporting at the highest levels. Four times a year, citizen scientists survey the same 1,000m2 section of beach. The resulting data helps to paint a picture of the litter in Aotearoa, helping to inform decision-makers tackling the problem.

The data is freely available at

This week is Seaweek, Aotearoa’s celebration of the sea, and ocean charity Sustainable Coastlines is ramping up efforts to protect our ocean. Waste, plastic pollution in particular, contributes to climate change and threatens both marine habitats and human health. It is an issue that demands urgent, dedicated attention, which is why Sustainable Coastlines is renewing its focus on clean beaches with an ambitious goal: reduce coastal litter by 60% by 2030.

When Sustainable Coastlines was founded in 2009, beach clean-ups were a fairly fringe activity. But the problem was big — Sustainable Coastlines’ first clean-up on Aotea Great Barrier saw 2.8 tonnes of litter removed from the remote island, with another 3.1 tonnes pulled from the same location a year later.

For co-founders Sam Judd and Camden Howitt, finding the situation worse just a year on told them that while beach clean-ups themselves were important, the amount of litter on our beaches wasn’t going to change without behaviour and policy change. Since then, Sustainable Coastlines has inspired communities across Aotearoa to take action at their local beach through clean-ups and education, and helped to nurture growing public interest in the issue of beach litter.

A volunteer removes rope littered on Rangitoto during one of Sustainable Coastlines’ island clean-up days.

To measure national progress towards its 60% goal, Sustainable Coastlines will use data from its Litter Intelligence programme. According to Community Engagement Director, Ben Knight, litter data will also be key to informing policy and action to reduce the amount of rubbish that ends up on the beach.

“We’ve already made headway informing policy change through Litter Intelligence. Citizen science data helped to inform the nationwide phase-out of hard-to-recycle plastics that’s currently underway,” says Knight.

“Litter data collection is a great way to engage and empower communities to take action for their local beach, but it also contributes invaluable data that’s available for anyone to use.”

It’s in this intersection of community action and policy change that the charity can reduce the amount of rubbish found on our coastlines, says Sustainable Coastlines CEO, Josh Borthwick.

A Litter Intelligence citizen scientist displays some of her findings on Kāpiti Island. Credit: Ministry for the Environment.

Hon David Parker, Minister for the Environment has previously highlighted the Litter Intelligence data set as, “a huge advantage to the Ministry for the Environment as a public policy tool, as it shows the areas that are most problematic and highlights to us the things that can be fixed.”

Sustainable Coastlines’ renewed focus on litter means that it will no longer be running its riparian planting programme, Love Your Water, which was established in 2014 and has seen volunteers plant more than 330,000 trees beside Aotearoa’s waterways.

“The decision to focus solely on litter was tough. Love Your Water — and all the people that got behind it, from volunteers to funders — has made a strong contribution to healthier waterways over the years. But the issue of waste is where Sustainable Coastlines can make the biggest difference to our environment,” says Borthwick.

Volunteers celebrate at the Hirepool Big Clean, a Sustainable Coastlines-run event during Seaweek.

According to Borthwick, this new strategic direction will allow the charity a greater focus on litter data to inspire insights and action around the problem, and we can expect more of the fun and inspiring beach clean-up days that Sustainable Coastlines is known for, including several events during Seaweek.

“We’re building the clearest picture of the litter problem on Aotearoa’s beaches, which ultimately impacts our oceans. You can’t change what you can’t measure and you can’t unsee the tohu, or signs, once they’re visible, so it’s our belief that the insight from this data will drive the change we need to forge a sustainable way forward.”

“We’re also having a pretty great time doing this, and would love to see some new faces at our events. So we extend the invitation to everyone to come along to our Seaweek events, have some fun looking after the places you love, and get cracking on progress on our new goal.”

Register for Sustainable Coastlines events at

Seaweek events
Sat 11 March, Hirepool Big Clean, Petone, WLG
Sat 11 March, Estuary Edge Clean-up, Te Ihutai/ Avon-Heathcote Estuary, CHCH
Sat 11 March, Seaweek Celebration, St Mary’s Bay, AKL
Sun 12 Mar, ‘The Ocean’ event, Sumner Centre, CHCH