Ms O’Loughlin, a fashion designer, used her swimwear collection on models Daisy Kermode and Altina Cotter to highlight the issue of river pollution. The stomach-churning blue pile behind them wasn’t set up as a prop for the photo shoot. Photos by Lucy Connell-Davies

No one’s responsible for saving cove

A LOCAL citizen scientist is blowing the whistle on microplastic pollution in the Swan River.

Claire O’Loughlin is mapping microplastics–plastics less than 5mm in length–at Swan River sites, notably Minim Cove in Mosman Park.

Ms O’Loughlin, who owns local sustainable swimwear company Ocean Remedy, said wind and tide conditions make the the cove a sink for microplastics.

Chief among the pollutants are tiny pellets called ‘nurdles,’ the raw form of plastic imported by Perth manufacturers, who melt and mold them into all sorts of plastic items.


While there was a major contamination of nurdles in North Fremantle and Mosman Park in 2016 (“Millions of plastic pellets pollute river,” Herald, November 5, 2016) Ms O’Loughlin says the shapes and weathering of the nurdles she’s finding suggests the problem is ongoing. 

“They’re still coming,” she said. Ms O’Loughlin and Heidi Tait from marine debris watchdog Tangaroa Blue point to local manufacturers as the source of the nurdles, which are leaked either in transport, during cleanup of the factory floor, or through disposal.

Golden West Plastics managing director David Smith says although his company does not use nurdles and is careful all plastic waste ends up in the bin, some loss can occur when they’re picked up by the rubbish truck.

Plastics are oil based and tend to absorb other oils, meaning they are often more toxic than the water around them. Ms O’Loughlin says nurdles also look like seaweed and fish eggs so they get ingested by marine life and move their way up the food chain until they end up on our dinner plates.

Claire O’Loughlin has been collecting data on river nurdles.

In spite of the risk posed by the pellets, advocates have had difficulty establishing responsibility for cleanup.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation has protocols for designating and remediating contaminated sites, but a spokesperson told the Herald nurdles were only considered litter.

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions said it was establishing baselines for microplastic pollution in the river. No such standard currently exists, making it difficult for Ms O’Loughlin to argue the cove should be declared a contaminated site.


In spite of these nurdle hurdles, Ms Tait says Tangaroa Blue has had some notable success working with DWER in Perth. After identifying nurdles on WA beaches in 2007, Tangaroa Blue began putting drain traps in Perth’s industrial areas. The presence of nurdles in traps allowed them to identify the sources.

These audits resulted in some manufacturers being issued notices by DWER. 

“They were told that they had to clean up and were monitored while they cleaned up,” Ms Tait said.

“And then they were told to implement strategies that would reduce the loss occurring in the future.”

Tangaroa Blue has since turned its attention to Victoria, where state funding allows it to work more effectively. While DWER is aware of the contamination of the river, Ms Tait says that the issue with establishing responsibility has to do with a lack of resources: “They rely on reports from the community to help with data collection.”

DWER relies on community reports from people like Ms O’Loughlin to collect data, but that has flaws: “I can only do so much in my free time,” she says.

Recently her cleanup activities got the attention of Greens member elect of the Upper House Brad Pettitt, who joined her at Minim Cove. 

“I would like to work with these amazing volunteers to stop the pollution, rather than just continually cleaning it up,” Dr Pettitt said.

Ms Tait says WA should follow the lead of Victoria, which is working on new legislation allowing its environmental regulator to step in and require businesses to clean up their act before a major spill occurs.

For now, Ms O’Loughlin is focusing on collecting data in the hope of attracting state or federal funding to help narrow down the search for the river’s polluters.


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