Why is marine debris a problem?

Marine Debris on a beach (© Copyright CSIRO Australia)

Plastics and other marine debris are a major environmental concern and impact the value of our waterways and marine environment to different people (e.g. the tourism industry, recreational fishers etc.). Debris from either land or sea-based sources can travel huge distances and pose a navigation hazard. It can also potentially transport chemical contaminants, transport invasive species, and smother, entangle and harm marine wildlife.

Plastic is the most common type of marine debris found on beaches in the Great Barrier Reef. It comprises between 50 to 90 per cent of all debris items recorded (GBRMPA, 2017); this is consistent with worldwide figures.

As marine debris has been identified by the Partnership as an important pressure on the iconic waterways and marine environments of the Mackay-Whitsunday-Isaac region, the Partnership has committed to reporting both the problem of marine debris and the community response to cleaning it up.


The Australian Marine Debris Initiative Database

The Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI) is a network of communities, schools, industries, government agencies and individuals focused on reducing the amount of marine debris washing into our oceans. The initiative includes a database, which enables volunteers and organisations who run marine debris clean-up events to collect data on what they were finding using a consistent methodology. This then means that the data can be collated into a standardised national database on marine debris.

Since 2004 more than 9 million pieces of data have been inputted into the Australian Marine Debris Database. This creates a comprehensive overview of the amount and types of marine debris that are impacting beaches around the country. Data from the AMDI makes up the majority of marine debris data reported in the 2016 report card.

Tangaroa Blue
Australian Marine Debris Initiative

A 2016/17 Regional clean-up effort

The data below represents a summary of clean-up data from a number of organisations across the Mackay-Whitsunday-Isaac Region. Data is presented per Local Government Area (Mackay or Whitsunday) postcode.

Clean Up Summary

AreaIsaac Regional CouncilMackay Regional CouncilWhitsunday Regional CouncilTotal Regional EffortIsaac Regional CouncilMackay Regional CouncilWhitsunday Regional CouncilTotal Regional Effort
Clean ups317828No data265581
Items collected80836,67811,05848,544No data54,861162,492217,353
Bags filled90217,3531,411454No data620.51,4112,032
Weight (kg)532,7256503,427No data5,03610,26515,301
Volunteers813253193No data3747881,162
Total hours38340238616No data7152,7693,484
Distance cleaned (m)2,40011,5855,12319,108No data19,61045,16564,775


AreaIsaac Regional CouncilMackay Regional CouncilWhitsunday Regional CouncilTotal Regional Effort
Clean ups317828
Items collected80836,67811,05848,544
Bags filled90217,3531,411454
Weight (kg)532,7256503,427
Total hours38340238616
Distance cleaned (m)2,40011,5855,12319,108


AreaIsaac Regional CouncilMackay Regional CouncilWhitsunday Regional CouncilTotal Regional Effort
Clean upsNo data265581
Items collectedNo data54,861162,492217,353
Bags filledNo data620.51,4112,032
Weight (kg)No data5,03610,26515,301
VolunteersNo data3747881,162
Total hoursNo data7152,7693,484
Distance cleaned (m)No data19,61045,16564,775

Land Source Sea Index (debris is categorised as originating from land or sea)

Whole region 2016-2017

Coastal beaches in populated areas

  • Land 42%
  • Sea 58%

Coastal beaches away from populated areas

  • Land 5%
  • Sea 95%


  • Land 4%
  • Sea 96%

Whole region 2015-2016

Coastal beaches in populated areas

  • Land 55%
  • Sea 45%

Coastal beaches away from populated areas

  • Land 8%
  • Sea 92%


  • Land
  • Sea

Material composition

What is our marine debris made of? See below for the breakdown across the Whitsunday and Mackay Local Government Areas.


Isaac LGA

  • Cloth 0.2%
  • Foam 2.6%
  • Glass & ceramic 2.4%
  • Metal 0.9%
  • Other 0.2%
  • Paper & cardboard 0%
  • Plastic 92%
  • Rubber 1.4%
  • Wood 0.4%

Mackay IGA

  • Cloth 0.4%
  • Foam 5.1%
  • Glass & ceramic 1%
  • Metal 1.2%
  • Other 0.7%
  • Paper & cardboard 0.1%
  • Plastic 85.1%
  • Rubber 5.5%
  • Wood 0.8%

Whitsunday IGA

  • Cloth 1%
  • Foam 4%
  • Glass & ceramic 6%
  • Metal 3%
  • Other 1%
  • Paper & cardboard 2%
  • Plastic 81%
  • Rubber 2%
  • Wood 2%

What is the data showing?

In comparison to 2015/16, there has been a substantial reduction in marine debris clean up effort in the Mackay-Whitsunday Region. The breakdown of data per Local Government Area (LGA) shows there is a stronger regional clean-up effort in the Whitsunday region, with significantly more volunteer effort (hours plus number of volunteers) and consequently many more beaches cleaned and weight removed. The data also shows that the overwhelming majority of material collected in both LGAs is plastic. Based on 2016/17 data, marine debris is more likely to be sourced from the sea in both Mackay and the Whitsundays.

Watch this space to see if the data changes for the 2017/18 reporting year and into the future, when the Partnership release their second report card later in 2019!

2016/17 Clean-up Organisations

Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership acknowledges the Australian Marine Debris Initiative, the community organisations and individuals involved in the collection and the provision of data used in this report.

Reef Blitz 2018

A special initiative called Reef Blitz was held in October 2018. This special series of regional clean-up events in the Mackay-Whitsunday Region were supported by the Mackay-Whitsunday Healthy Rivers to Reef Partnership and were led by the Reef Citizen Science Alliance. A summary is provided below. These data will be included in the total regional marine debris clean-up effort statistics in the 2019 report card.