Litter Intelligence unites efforts to tackle plastic pollution | Sustainable Coastlines

Litter data programme unites efforts to tackle plastic pollution

Media release: 11 August 2023


On 29 July 2018, members of community group Plastic Bag Free Tairāwhiti and New Zealand charity Sustainable Coastlines measured out a 100 metre by 20 metre stretch of Gisborne’s Waikanae Beach, collected all the litter in the area, categorised it, and recorded the data. This was the very first survey for Litter Intelligence, Sustainable Coastlines’ national beach litter monitoring programme.

Five years on, and the charity is celebrating the programme’s success so far with a Litter Intelligence showcase at Little Shoal Bay in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, attended by Associate Environment Minister Rachel Brooking.

Supported by Ministry for the Environment, Stats NZ, and the Department of Conservation, Sustainable Coastlines developed Litter Intelligence to address two gaps: one being the lack of coastal and marine litter data, which is needed to inform action; the other being the gap between communities who care about the problem and the policymakers who have the power to take meaningful steps to address it.

So far, everything points to Litter Intelligence delivering on what it was designed to do. Trained Litter Intelligence citizen scientists include school children, teachers, work groups, mana whenua, community groups, and government and council employees. Together, they have volunteered more than 23,000 hours, providing data from more than 1,900 individual surveys across 460 survey sites.

Minister Brooking and others collecting litter during the survey.

This significant data set is freely available at and, because the data is collected to the highest standards of scientific rigour, it has been used by the government to help to inform reports and even policy. In 2019, when a snapshot of the programme’s findings was featured in Our Marine Environment 2019, it was the first time that data collected by citizens was included in any New Zealand government report at this level.

“By engaging communities in the science that informs our understanding of the problem, we can better engage them in the solutions. We’re really keen to celebrate five years of community effort and the significant outcomes that they have contributed to,” says Sustainable Coastlines engagement director, Ben Knight.

Litter Intelligence data can tell us things such as litter density, where our litter hotspots are, and litter composition. This allows policymakers to understand things such as how much of a problem plastic is on our coastlines. The data contributes to Stats NZ’s wellbeing indicators and featured in Our Marine Environment 2022. It has also had an influence on policy, with its inclusion in the documents that informed the government’s phase-out of problem plastic.

Citizen scientists categorising litter during the audit.

For citizen scientists that take part in the programme, such as Anne Taylor who monitors the Steeple Rock and Breaker Bay sites in Wellington Harbour with her group, being able to contribute at that level is meaningful.

“I feel positive about my impact as a citizen scientist because collecting data is going to lead to real change beyond a simple beach clean-up. With data from groups like ours around the country, it has the power to change things at an industry or policy level. When I feel despairing about the state of our oceans and environment, I remember that even small things can make a difference.”

Local MP Shanan Halbert and Minister Brooking take part in the litter audit.

The dedication of citizen scientists is just one indicator of the growing concerns over plastic pollution, as ‘ocean plastics’ join ‘build-up of plastic in the environment’ in New Zealanders’ top 10 concerns. The government is taking note: its recently announced waste strategy has a vision of a low-emissions, low-waste Aotearoa built upon a circular economy by 2050.

Sustainable Coastlines’ goal to see 60% less litter on the coastlines of Aotearoa by 2030 means that the charity will be building on its success to engage community groups and decision makers in both litter data collection and using that data to take meaningful action, as Sustainable Coastlines CEO Josh Borthwick notes.

“In five years, we’ve seen Litter Intelligence help to inform government reports and policy, and having the Associate Environment Minister along today is a great reflection of the programme’s influence. We’ve also seen a multitude of solutions taken by schools, community groups, and businesses.”

Borthwick continues, “This momentum we’re seeing gives us hope that our national efforts will combine with international efforts to tackle plastic pollution. Data will play a big part in providing the insight needed to deliver on our ambitions.”

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