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.