Top 10 Plastic Pollution Offenders | Sustainable Coastlines

Top 10 Plastic Pollution Offenders

Plus their plastic-free counterparts


To give you some motivation for Plastic Free July and beyond, we’re sharing the top 10 plastic items found in our Litter Intelligence beach surveys, and some tips on how to avoid them!

As of 29 June 2022, plastic and foamed plastic together represent 75% of the total litter we find in our beach survey areas across Aotearoa, by number of items (not weight or mass). 

At any time on the Litter Intelligence Insights page, you can see the most commonly found litter in our beach survey areas.

This data is thanks to the Litter Intelligence citizen scientists across Aotearoa, who visit their local beach every three months and conduct a litter survey. The data they collect give us awesome insights into the state of our coastlines and what we can do about it. Ngā mihi nui to these fantastic volunteers!

Photo: Ministry for the Environment. Citizen scientists conducting a survey on Kāpiti Island.
MFE Beach cleanup project on Kāpiti Island with Sustainable Coastlines crew & Department of Conservation.
24/09/2021 Photographer Jeff McEwan / Capture Studios
SCL_Auckland Council Staff Day@Taumanu Reserve_21.04.21_139

#10: Lollipop sticks

4,590 items, 1.3% of all items

If you’re ever surprised by your child coming home from school and telling you not to buy lollipops anymore, they’ve probably had a presentation from us. The ridiculous number of lollipop sticks on our coastline and the impact they have on marine life is often one of our key takeaways.

Use instead: this one’s easy. Most lollies don’t have sticks! Even better, get some without plastic wrap from your local bulk store.

Top 10 carousels

#9: Food containers

5,910 items, 1.7% of all items

Plastic takeaway boxes, yoghurt pottles, soy sauce fish — sadly, a lot of the items we use day-to-day for convenience end up on our coastlines. 

Use instead: we recommend small steps with this one as it can be hard to cut everything out at once. Our number-one tip is to get some good-quality reusable food containers (keep using your plastic ones if that’s what you’ve got), and take them with you to work to fill up at your favourite lunch spot, or your takeaway shop for dinner.

SCL_Auckland Council Staff Day@Taumanu Reserve_21.04.21_224 copy

#8: Unidentifiable foamed plastic fragments

6,627 items, 1.9% of all items

This category is made up of little bits of foamed plastic that are so fragmented we can’t identify them! Let’s be honest, some of this stuff, like polystyrene, just breaks up in your hands. The smaller it is, the harder it is to get out of our ecosystems, which is why it’s super important to not let it get there in the first place.

Use instead: We’re stoked that polystyrene takeaway containers are being banned from late 2022! But foamed plastic is also often used to keep fragile things safe during shipping, like the foam netting used to protect wine bottles or mangoes, and those awful packing beans! If you’re getting something shipped, ask the supplier if they have a biodegradable alternative, like good old brown paper — the more people that ask, the more likely they will listen!

#7: Bottle caps & lids

13,898 items, 4% of all items

We’ve all spotted these in the sand, so this one should come as no surprise. As you’ll see when we get to #1, plastic bottle caps are made even more dangerous to wildlife when they break up into smaller, more consumable, pieces, which they do easily — so grab ’em while they’re big.

Use instead: your reusable drink bottle! If you want something fizzy to go with your fish and chips, opt for aluminium cans or make your own fizz at home. Milk-bottle tops are frequent offenders in this category, so find out whether you have a local spot that will refill glass bottles.

Cigarette butts SCL_Auckland Council Staff Day@Taumanu Reserve_21.04.21_99

#6: Cigarettes, butts & filters

14,590 items, 4.2% of all items

We’re pretty sure that a lot of people we see flicking their cigarettes out the window don’t realise that CIGARETTE BUTTS AND FILTERS DO NOT BREAK DOWN! Sorry for the shouty caps, but this one we really want to shout from the rooftops. They also leach gross toxins into the water and can be consumed by marine life. Ugh. 

Use instead: well, we’d love to suggest you stop smoking because we care about you. But if you must, an easy solution is carrying an empty mint tin as a portable ashtray. Note that vaping is no better — we find a lot of those refill cartridges on the beach too.


#5: Unidentifiable soft plastic fragments

15,131 items, 4.4% of all items

You know what we’re not finding many of anymore? Plastic bags, thanks to 2019’s ban! But we’re still finding bits of them, just more and more broken up. Any plastic that spends time out in the elements will break up and become unidentifiable (and easier for marine life to swallow). These ‘unidentifiable’ pieces were originally items such as food wrappers, pallet wrap — any soft-plastic packaging, really.

Use instead: this is a big category, so there’s no single answer. But we recommend you pay a visit to your local bulk shop and see which items you would happily swap the packaged version for and build it from there. Also, if you’re at the beach and have plastic packaging to dispose of, consider taking them home rather than use the beach bins — soft plastics are expert escape artists, especially when caught by a sea breeze.

Rope Rangitoto 27:03:2021 Irena Cima0 copy_resized

#4: Rope (plastic)

16,260 items, 4.7% of all items

The number-four most commonly found plastic on our beaches is plastic rope! You’ve probably seen the havoc rope can cause to marine life minding their own business, with the devastating result often found washed up on our beaches. Rope is all over our coastline (by weight it ranks #1) and there’s even more floating in the moana.

Use instead: rope made of natural fibre (e.g. hemp) has been used for ocean expeditions for centuries, so there’s no reason we can’t make this switch! It’s still important to be responsible with its disposal when it reaches the end of its life. If you don’t use rope in your day-to-day, you can help out by removing it from the beach when you see it, and if there’s too much, tell your local council.

Polystyrene takeaway

#3: Polystyrene insulation or packaging

16,409 items, 4.8% of all items

Taking out the bronze medal for most commonly found plastics on the beach is the crowd-favourite: polystyrene! Ever taken a sip out of a polystyrene cup and accidently taken a bite out of it? No…? Anyway, you know how easily this rubbish breaks up, making infiltrating our ecosystems light work.

Use instead: Happily, polystyrene takeaway containers are being phased out in late 2022 as part of the government’s plan to tackle problem plastics. So fingers crossed we see this knocked off the podium soon! If your local takeaway still uses these containers, take along your own container and kindly remind them of the upcoming ban.

5IVHQ 2019

#2: Food wrappers

24,127 items, 7% of all items

Imagine you’re a honu, a sea turtle, cruising the ocean, looking for a feed. An amorphous object catches your eye. A jellyfish — awesome. You chow it down, but it’s tasteless, hard to swallow, and who knows what it’s going to do to you. It’s a food wrapper, and these make up some of those ‘soft plastic fragments’ we saw at #5.

Use instead: Get some reusable produce bags, visit your local bulk store with some refillable containers, and maybe let your fav brands know you’re keen to move away from plastic. Getting in the habit of prepping your own snacks at home is also a great way to save plastic (and money).

Plastic waste breaks down into tiny pieces which are consumed by marine animals

#1: Unidentifiable hard plastic fragments

92,043 items, 26.9% of all items

*Note that we only count items over 5mm in size, so this does not include microplastics.

Taking out the top spot is the hard-to-say (and even harder to digest) unidentifiable hard plastic fragments! You’ve probably seen the news articles on toroa (albatross) parents regurgitating plastic fragments for their chicks. The longer a piece of plastic is out in the elements, the more fragile it becomes, and when it breaks up, it’s much more likely to be swallowed by our beautiful marine life.

Use instead: unidentifiable hard plastic fragments are made up of lots of different types of products, so there’s no single answer. But the ubiquity of these fragments is a great motivation to reconsider any plastic you use in your daily life. Getting plastic out of our lives (and our moana) is a journey for all of us, so don’t be too hard on yourself if there’s something you can’t give up just yet. Start small and build from there!

All the best for your plastic-free journey! For more Plastic Free July inspiration and tips, check out our resources below, or explore more litter data at the Litter Intelligence Insights page.

Concerns for the state of the Hauraki Gulf unite philanthropic trusts to invest in long-term solutions in the Waihou-Piako catchment.

Take a look at the Firth of Thames on a map. At its bottom right you’ll see it has a little tail, the Waihou River, and next to it (you might have to zoom in), is the Piako River. These two rivers make up the Waihou–Piako catchment — a vast landscape of 3,743 square kilometres that drains into the Hauraki Gulf. Sustainable Coastlines is one of many groups spread across the region working hard to improve the health of these awa.

When you cross the Kopu Bridge (that’s right, the one you have to hold your breath over on family holidays), and look down, the water is coffee-brown. It doesn’t start out that way. In fact, the Waihou starts life as some of the clearest water in the world — you can visit the famous Blue Spring in Putaruru, close to the river’s source in the Mamaku Ranges. The Piako River begins near here, draining the ranges west of Matamata.

Where the Piako and Waihou Rivers meet the Firth of Thames (top right)

By the time these two awa wend their way through the Waikato countryside, they are loaded with sediment and pollutants picked up from the pasture used predominantly for intensive dairy farming. Each year, these rivers deposit more than 185,000 tonnes of sediment into the Hauraki Gulf, a precious body of water that many groups are desperately trying to save.

Sediment is just one of the threats to the gulf, but it’s a significant one. It smothers the seafloor for many miles from the mouths of these awa, altering the sea for humans and marine creatures alike, and stifling intensive efforts to restore the mussel beds that once carpeted the Firth of Thames. According to the Hauraki Gulf Forum’s State of our Gulf 2020 Report, excess sediment is the third highest threat to Aotearoa’s marine habitats.

The coffee-brown Waitakaruru Stream, a major tributary of the Piako River

For Sustainable Coastlines — and many of the existing groups working in this area — the key to improving the quality of this water is restoring the riparian ecosystems in the catchment. This requires a large-scale, multi-generational approach that deeply engages the community, which is the basis of the charity’s Love Your Water programme.

Now, thanks to the support and vision of The Tindall Foundation and Simplicity Foundation, along with Trust Waikato, Sustainable Coastlines can expand its efforts in the region, helping communities to plant and care for native flora in riparian zones, as well as learn to monitor and report on the health of the ecosystems in their local area.

“Simplicity Foundation is really happy to be able to help support the next phase of this important planting programme, working to help improve the health of our precious Hauraki Gulf,” says Simplicity Foundation manager Rebecca Roberts.

“Simplicity members have identified improving the environment as one of our key giving pillars and we’re glad we can help Sustainable Coastlines drive the long-term future impact of this collaborative project.”

Local volunteers at a Sustainable Coastlines tree-planting day, Morrinsville, 2021

Sustainable Coastlines programme coordinator and Waihou–Piako catchment manager Natalia Groom says that philanthropic funds will be a big boost to efforts in the region.

 “It’s awesome that these funders have recognised what we’ve achieved so far with Love Your Water,” she says. “Their contributions will pay for things like equipment, seedlings, and staff costs, meaning we can run even more community planting days, as well as maintenance days, which will give the seedlings the best chance of thriving.” 

Last year, seed funding from Little Kowhai Charitable Trust managed by Perpetual Guardian combined with funds for plants and equipment from Lion Foundation gave us a solid start despite interruptions from Covid.  

The coffee-brown colour of the waters of the Waihou and Piako Rivers is not inevitable, and the community groups such as the Piako Catchment Forum already working on riparian planting in the region certainly don’t see it that way.

“The better we can support local communities to protect the awa they love, the quicker we can achieve the large-scale restoration work that is so dearly needed,” says Natalia. “Having support from these funds takes us a long way there.”

Media release: 22 May 2022

An increasing number of New Zealanders are worried about biodiversity loss according to the 2022 Better Futures Report. 40% reported they were concerned, up from 29% the previous year, reflecting the warnings of the scientific community which states that Aotearoa is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. Addressing these concerns is award-winning charity Sustainable Coastlines, which alongside ANZ, is encouraging all whānau and friends across Aotearoa to take action this World Biodiversity Day (22 May) by signing up to volunteer for the ANZ Love Your Water Planting Series this winter.

World Biodiversity Day was created by the United Nations to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, which is one of the key aims of the ANZ Love Your Water Planting Series. The series will span two sites in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, and one each in the Waikato, Te Ūpoko o Te Ika a Māui Wellington, and Waitaha Canterbury regions. These riparian planting projects provide Kiwis of all ages the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and lend a helping hand to restore their local waterway and enhance our native biodiversity.

“People protect what they love, which is why our purpose at Sustainable Coastlines is to connect people to nature and inspire change”, says Love Your Water Programme Manager, Dan Downing.

“Through our Love Your Water programme, we support communities in five targeted regions through Aotearoa, to restore and look after their local waterway. Riparian planting is critical work — 94% of rivers in urban areas and 82% of rivers in pastoral farming areas are not suitable for swimming in. Beyond these critical numbers, we know that the Ministry for the Environment has already declared our indigenous biodiversity to be in crisis and with the Ministry of Conservation stating that almost 30% of the country’s terrestrial species are threatened or in risk of extinction — the time to act is now”.

“For us, it’s incredibly encouraging to see that the health of our environment is currently top of mind for Kiwis. We invite everyone to take action this World Biodiversity Day by registering to attend our planting days over winter”.

Matariki Tree-Planting Day, Te Atatū, 2021

The Better Futures Report 2022 also states that concern over the protection of New Zealand native animals and plants is at 53%, up from 46% the previous year.

“The interest to do more is clearly there”, adds Downing, “and the opportunity to do something about it is made possible with the ANZ Love Your Water Planting Series”.

Now in its third year, Sustainable Coastlines and ANZ’s partnership has so far helped put 129,824 trees in the ground and brought together thousands of volunteers throughout Aotearoa.

“We’re delighted to bring together the ANZ Love Your Water Planting Series for another season”, says Antonia Watson, ANZ New Zealand CEO.

“Our relationship with Sustainable Coastlines helps drive greater outcomes for biodiversity in our communities, and it’s a perfect chance for our people to get outside and connect with te taiao (the natural environment) and each other.”

“We’ve got a very special environment to protect here in Aotearoa, and it desperately needs our help — which is why we hope to see a record number of volunteers helping out this season”, adds Downing.

“Please register to attend our tree plantings this World Biodiversity Day, and join us in this purposeful mahi to help restore Papaptūānuku”.

These tree planting events are family friendly and free for all to attend. All necessary equipment and instructions will be provided by Sustainable Coastlines, including health and safety and complimentary drinks and kai for all volunteers.

Celebrate Kiwi kids taking action to protect our moana this Seaweek

[Press release] Kiwi charity Sustainable Coastlines is raising funds to educate children on ocean restoration.


Seaweek is Aotearoa’s annual national week devoted to the ocean, and this year, it’s encouraging Kiwis to ‘connect to the sea’. Heeding the call is environmental charity Sustainable Coastlines, which is raising funds for its school education programme, to continue inspiring tamariki to restore the mauri of our moana. Launching its Double Your Donation campaign, Sustainable Coastlines is encouraging donations during Seaweek, as any donations made between 5 and 13 March will be doubled by supporting businesses. 

Sustainable Coastlines’ Litter Intelligence Programme Manager Shawn Elise Tierney urges ocean lovers to take up the appeal, as the positive impact on our tamariki and our moana will be doubled.

“We hold a great responsibility to educate future generations and inspire them to look after Papatūānuku”, says Shawn Elise, “which is why we developed our Litter Intelligence Education Programme (LIEP) to inspire tamariki to look after their local coastline and inform better decisions for a world without litter.”

One of the most rewarding parts of our education programme, according to Shawn Elise, is hearing the success stories from the field, about Kiwi kids taking action, being innovative and implementing the skills the charity has taught them to make a positive difference. Waiheke’s Te Huruhi School, for example, switched problematic ‘compostable’ single-use cups for reusable ones, after discovering that the ‘eco’ cups used at their school were actually PLA (polylactic acid) lined.

“We need to do more than clean up rubbish on the beach: we need to educate future generations to be part of the solution that prevents rubbish from leaking into the environment in the first place”. LIEP is the education programme that does just that — giving teachers and students skills and capabilities in data collection, environmental monitoring, leadership, problem-solving, citizen science, community engagement, influencing techniques, presentation delivery, storytelling and more.

According to the latest World Ocean Assessment report, the ocean is our biggest ally in mitigating climate change, and understanding our impact on it is the first step to protecting it. Litter Intelligence was created to collect critical data on the impact of litter on our coastlines. “We cannot improve what we do not measure, which is why our Litter Intelligence education programme and associated data is so important. We know that data empowers action and we want to empower our rangatahi with data to take action for the places that are important to them”, says Shawn Elise.

Sustainable Coastlines intern, Nakita, gives a ‘Love Your Coast’ presentation to children from Hobsonville Primary in 2021.

“Thanks to the generous matching donors for our Double Your Donation campaign, we’re well on our way to meet our $20,000 goal, to help fund our educational work”. 

The companies involved are APL, Hirepool, Pit Stop, Hyundai NZ and WaterSmart. They are all New Zealand–owned businesses who understand the urgency in looking after our environment by educating future generations and are putting their money behind this epic cause. 

The funds raised through the Double Your Donation campaign will allow the charity to fund LIEP and continue inspiring groups like Te Iti Kahurangi Kāhui Ako, a community of 10 schools, with varying age groups, in Onehunga that has committed to looking after the local coastline that unites the students along the Manukau Harbour. Or Opoutere School, where LIEP inspired two students to hone in on their shared hobby, skateboarding. The students are now moulding skateboard deck rails out of recycled plastics, and even looking to market their product in the future. And Maraetai Beach School, whose entire environmental group wrote and produced a rap to highlight the pollution problem in Aotearoa. 

“These success stories are truly inspiring, and with your help we can continue motivating our tamariki to take action. So please, help us out this Seaweek — $5, $50, $500, whatever you want to donate helps us to fulfill our mission to connect people to nature and inspire change”, adds Shawn Elise. 

“You can double your donation by donating during Seaweek, and we can double our impact for our moana!”