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Can litter art help keep our islands clean?

Schoolkids on Great Barrier Island have been cleaning up their beaches, analysing the rubbish they find and creating art from it.

Hat made from collected rope

Aotea (Great Barrier Island) locals are tired of all the man-made debris that washes up on their shores and are trying to find ways to reduce its impact on the environment.

As part of a community-wide project, students from three primary schools – Kaitoke School, Mulberry Grove School and Te Kura O Okiwi – have been carrying out beach clean-ups in different parts of the island and collecting a variety of litter from many sources.

Kaitoke School has collected lots of plastic from their local east coast surf beach, while Te Kura O Okiwi students have found large quantities of rope when cleaning Port Fitzroy’s northern bays. Mulberry Grove School picked up a mixture of both island and off-island sea waste on their nearby beach in the south of the island.

The students shared their findings with the local community during a presentation day in Claris. Rather than just give a talk, though, they chose to use art pieces and performances to tell stories with their new knowledge.

Glass jandals

One example was a huge shark that the students at Te Kura O Okiwi had made out of all the rubbish they had found. The sculpture not only looks impressive, but reflects the students’ Māori heritage.

“Mangōpare is our hammerhead shark and kaitiaki [guardian],” Wiremu, 12, says. He explains that Mangōpare often features in their traditional stories about who they are and where they come from.

Okiwi kaiako Mairehau Cleave adds that although their school was the first to do beach clean-ups 22 years ago, this is the first time they have joined with others and looked scientifically at what they found.

Another highlight was seven-year-old Xyra’s inspiring conceptual art piece: ‘footprints’ made from jandals with shards of glass glued to them, which represents the health risks of beach litter.

“It’s so cool to see the kids come up with this impressive work!” says Tracey Turner, a University of Auckland post-grad student who is helping lecturer Joe Fagan clean the beaches with the schools. “I also can’t believe just how much rubbish they’ve found – even a freezer!”

“I think the weirdest thing was the couch,” says Alyssa from Okiwi, speaking of a sofa Kaitoke students had found that was still intact enough to sit on.

Performance about the effects of sea litter

Project lead Marie McEntee, also from the University of Auckland, says that there’s even been a few red herrings that have made the children think about how currents flow around the Island.

“We actually found what the children believe is a wallaby skull! At first they wondered ‘how on Earth did that get here?!’ then they thought that it’s probably come from Kawau Island, which has had wallabies since the 1800s.”

She says that all the findings have really developed the kids’ sense of problem-solving.

“They’re asking questions like, ‘is broken glass on the beach actually bad for the environment?’ Even though we know it is bad for cutting your feet, does it have wider environmental impacts?”

A group of students at Mulberry Grove School also collected an old bike. One of the boys at the school – but not in the clean-up group – admitted that he found the abandoned bike months earlier but threw it in a stream. He then helped make a film about how the bike ended up on the beach, showing a caricature of himself as the ‘naughty kid’ throwing the bike in the stream, to pass on the lesson he had learnt.

Kids with bike

“I’ve really enjoyed the work we’ve been doing and I’ve learnt just how important doing beach clean-ups are to caring for our environment,” says Rylee, 12, from Kaitoke School.

“My favourite part was acting out our play,” says Lucy, 10, also from Kaitoke.

“I liked cleaning the beach,” says Levi, 6. “I found a big fat jandal!”

Levi’s mum says when she and Levi are out on a drive and he spots roadside waste, he always asks her to stop the car so that they can pick it up: “I’ve seen a big change in him – he’s now picking up litter whenever and wherever he can.”

Students sharing their findings with a wall display

The students are now coming up with ways to persuade others to think differently about marine debris as part of the solution to this problem.

Mulberry Grove School's students have been hosting community beach clean-ups, where they share with others what they have learnt about beach litter’s impacts as well as provide opportunities to reduce it. In the latest clean-up, locals and tourists had together collected over 2000 pieces of rubbish from a single beach – with almost 700 pieces being plastic waste.

Te Kura O Okiwi now have their shark sculpture proudly displayed in the island’s art gallery, sharing its creation story with both community members and tourists.


About the project

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This project is co-run by the University of Auckland and Great Barrier Island locals and schools, with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.



Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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