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ABC News
ABC News
Matt Garrick

Northern Australian beaches inundated by thousands of tonnes of plastic waste from Asia

An environmental mess is growing in far northern Australia, with wave after wave of plastic waste washing up on coastlines in the remote Northern Territory and Queensland.

Lighters, thongs, scooter helmets, medical syringes and toothbrushes are among an endless list of discarded items, much of it from Indonesia, piling up on once-pristine beaches.

Indigenous ranger groups in north-east Arnhem Land say this year, it is the worst they've ever seen it.

Jess Puntoriero, the sea country facilitator for Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation – the group responsible for overseeing a long stretch of Arnhem Land's coast – said south-easterly dry season winds were "dumping thousands of tonnes of rubbish up in the Gulf of Carpentaria".

"We've only got 10 rangers, and to stretch that out along 70 kilometres of coastline when we're just getting smashed by marine debris, it's utilising all of our resources and time," she said.

"We're already seeing the impact it's having on our natural environment; it's impacting culturally significant sites, animals, and areas where traditional owners go out to hunt."

The federal environment department said Indigenous rangers in the north "have successfully removed … 120 cubic metres (roughly six semi-trailer loads) of marine debris from the gulf’s beaches and inshore waters" since early 2021. 

Rirratjingu clan traditional owner Mawalan '2' Marika said he feared the plastics and microplastics washing into his fishing and hunting country could be doing lasting damage to the ecosystems.

"It's really sad, and it's really dangerous for the fish, and all the animals that live in the sea," he said.

The plastic waste is also potentially causing harm to the region's fledgling tourism industry, with travellers voicing their dismay at the state of some of the area's most popular beaches.

Some, like Darwin traveller Amanda Martin, said Australians needed to be made aware of the issue.

"I was shocked," she said.

"I think if this was Bondi Beach in Sydney, there'd be outrage over this sort of rubbish."

Rangers are calling for the new federal government to continue discussions about a solution with Indonesian officials and the other countries from where the worst of the rubbish is coming.

Tests on barcodes of a cross-section of the plastic products have confirmed the trash's nations of origin, with the bulk of the rubbish hailing from Indonesia, with other items from China, Taiwan and Thailand.

Dhimurru's managing director Djawa 'Timmy' Burarrwanga also called for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to travel to the Gulf of Carpentaria region to see the problem firsthand.

"Our Prime Minister needs to see how this problem works, we want him to come here and see how this [was once] a beautiful beach, and now it's filled with rubbish," Mr Burarrwanga said.

A spokesperson for the federal environment department said the "issue of waste and plastic pollution is of critical importance to Australia". 

“Recently, at the United Nations Environment Assembly, Australia joined countries to launch negotiations for a new treaty to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment,” the spokesperson said.  

“Australia will be looking to deepen engagement with countries in the South-East Asian region, including Indonesia, as we work together to develop the new treaty. 

"We look forward to exploring further opportunities for engagement on waste and plastic pollution with Indonesia." 

Mr Albanese is expected to be in north-east Arnhem Land for the upcoming Garma festival next weekend, but it remains unclear if he will visit the rubbish-hit beaches during his trip.

The government has also just funded five northern ranger groups to hire dedicated marine debris coordinators, as part of a pilot program to help them tackle the ongoing problem head-on.

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