Pollution in our waterways

Pollution in our waterways
Jackie Watts

Melbourne’s 19th century waterways, including Docklands, were regarded as efficient industrial waste disposal systems.

According to the Old Treasury Building website, “Noxious trades lined the lower banks of the Yarra River and upstream ... slaughterhouses, tallow works, tanneries, glue works, bone mills, fellmongers, wool washers, and soap works. In the 1880s the Health Committee of the City of Melbourne toured the river, shocked by what they saw.”

“Open vats of offal, piles of drying bones and the hair and flesh from tanned hides, lay discarded in the open air. Animal carcasses floated in the water. Foul, black waste from industry poured into the river,” it stated.

Perhaps this mentality lingers today?

Rubbish littering and polluting our waterways somehow seems to be even more offensive and irksome than rubbish littering our streets. Heading towards the convention centre at Southbank last week, I noticed people pointing down to the water’s edge. What were they pointing at? Birds, fish? Sadly, no.

They were pointing to a sizable collection of rubbish – clearly not new rubbish – gunk obviously captured and then simply left to sit, degenerating in this prime CBD site alongside parkland at Southbank.

A pile of rubbish has also accumulated at the edge of the wet dock nearby in the parkland. Stating the obvious, if such a pile of rotting rubbish had accumulated at some land-based kerbside location, it would be cleared away pronto as a health hazard. Quite the opposite occurs with such accumulations in our waterways.

Since 1996, Parks Victoria (PV) has been the authority responsible for floating litter in our waterways. PV manages 18 litter traps on the Lower Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers and nine traps within the city’s boundary.

PV is collecting floating litter in litter traps, but regrettably, the captured rubbish left to rot in traps at highly visible public sites is left for far too long. Certainly the volume is immense: “Litter in the Yarra is an ongoing issue with up to three billion pieces of litter (about 2000 to 3000 tonnes) washes into Melbourne’s waterways through stormwater drains every year.”

That the job is difficult is no excuse for a poor outcome.

PV claimed all litter traps are cleaned via a barge system at least every two weeks and more often after rain or in winter. Clearly the collection system is inadequate. A land-based clearance system would enable a more flexible, frequent, and efficient service.


The Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN) has now been advised that PV will pay closer attention to litter traps and clean them more often, especially those within the commercial (CBD) district. Docklands residents can “encourage” such service improvements by acting on litter in the waterways.


There is a dedicated number to report dumping – and it can be argued that in tolerating accumulated litter to sit for far too long in the litter traps, it is in effect being “dumped” at the water’s edge awaiting a barge-based collection.

Docklands residents may not be comforted but may be interested to know that data about litter in our waterways is submitted for analysis by the non-profit group Tangaroa Blue with the objective of identifying where the problems commence upstream. See tangaroablue.org

It is simply unacceptable to claim that the configuration and water current are problematic and excuse poor service by responsible authorities.

New technologies now available, e.g., Australian cleantech start-up, Seabin Project helping to reduce plastic pollution in Sydney Harbour, see here.

Docklands residents may have noticed that PV is currently conducting a dredging campaign in CBD Yarra waterways, including Docklands. Those of us living or working near these dredging works will have noticed the obvious link between dredging and rubbish.

The objective is to reduce the amount of sediment in seven locations to enable safe boating access and ensure the river is accessible for public use. Such dredging of sediment also delivers a truly astounding amount of, yes, rubbish!

The four-year dredging program has involved removal of about 12,000 cubic metres of river sediment and will conclude in August. Dredged material will be transported by pipe to deeper sections of the river upstream of the Bolte Bridge.

The cubic volume of rubbish is not known – but observers are astonished at what emerges. Someone should tally the number of bikes and scooters. Do the commercial operators of these items contribute to the costs of recovery? Once the sites have been dredged, the low tide water depth at the dredging sites will be around two metres. See the PV website – River Users Update No.3.

The water was apparently clear at the time of European settlement, but intensive land clearing and development soon resulted in the presence of microscopic clay particles in the water, maintained in suspension by turbulence in the middle and lower sections of the river.

Docklands residents are acutely conscious of this and the value of adequate waterways services. So be vigilant, call the EPA litter line on 1300 372 842 or contact the City of Melbourne on 9658 9658. •

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