Lucy Curno Revive

Georges River – Community Interview

CVA Project Officer, Teresa Gustowski

 

Teresa ironically doesn’t consider herself a water person.

As the local Revive Project Officer and protector of the Georges River, she fondly refers to rivers and oceans as ‘wet spaces’. Yet that doesn’t stop her passion for natural environments, and for using data to drive change in people’s behaviour towards protecting them.

Growing up near the Georges River for the past 27 years, Teresa’s come full circle since she first started with Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) as part of the Green Army youth programme almost five years ago. A programme that caught her attention after hearing a Spotify ad which promoted the opportunity as “for young people who loved the environment”. This was when she first worked on, and really noticed, the magnificent Georges River.

Through Green Army, I was lucky enough to be involved in a range of different activities along the Georges River; tree planting, weed removal and litter clean ups. Unfortunately some sites were absolutely covered with litter which was heart breaking to see. But it’s a great feeling to return to the Georges River all these years later to focus on and address those very issues!”

With an affinity for land-based insects, when choosing which river animal she identifies with, we compromise on a NudibranchIt’s also referred to as the butterfly of the ocean, donning bright colours like the loud shirts Teresa loves to wear. They’re also eccentric too. She also loves data, and learning about what makes people tick. Having studied a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science, Teresa sees herself working long term in the environmental space, finding out what people are interested in, how that influences their behaviours and ultimately what projects CVA can initiate to align with those interests.

As a Project Officer within the Revive Campaign, Teresa’s focus is the #SeaToSource project – which works to eliminate ocean-litter from waterways like the Georges River. As a part of this project, Teresa often spends her days leading river clean ups, connecting volunteers to the site before starting litter collection through an interpretive walk of the area, pointing out species they may have never seen before.

But of equal importance, once again, is the data.

Teresa and the volunteers sort the litter into categories (e.g., straws, cutlery, plastic bags) in order to establish the source of the litter. That data is then uploaded to a national database along with other stakeholders of the Georges River to create an informative and collective data set.

What Teresa hopes is that the data will allow people to see the bigger picture rather than just the single act of cleaning up, ideally changing mindsets and behaviours towards addressing the issue at the root of the problem.

“There’s a quote from Heidi Tait (the co-founder of Tangaroa Blue, another amazing organization working to tackle ocean litterthat’s really stuck with meif all we ever do is clean up, that’s all we’ll ever do”. I love the fact that I can be involved in encouraging people to do something about it at a greater level than that. If we don’t start looking at what we’re collecting, and trying to stop litter directly at the source, all we’ll ever be doing is cleaning up.”

Scattered along the different section of the Georges River, Teresa has also noticed what she calls a “litter fingerprint” which is different types of build up depending on the surroundings.

What I’ve noticed on the coastal parts of the river is more fishing line, bait and tackle. As you move further up the catchment into the urbanized hubs, you find more food packaging or toys, because of a popular picnic spot nearby. Sadly, we also see dumping – if people’s properties back onto the river, they might be tempted to throw their litter into surrounding bushland. #SeaToSource isn’t about pointing the finger and laying blame, it’s about working together with the community to educate and empowerand for all of us to be a part of the movement to stop litter at the source.

From years of watching local residents use the Georges River as an escape from the city for activities like bush walking, fishing, boating and jet skiing, she wants to educate those people on the organisms that are living in the river. The Towra Nature Reserve at the end of the Georges River is technically an internationally listed wetland, and Teresa wants people to know that and to see how amazing the whole river system is, so they’re more inclined to respect it.

“The Georges River is essentially one big giant vein pumping life and diversity throughout Sydney. I would love for everyone to recognise that and understand how their relationship with litter can affect one of our biggest natural assets. Some people might use straws out of convenience and think one straw per week doesn’t hurt, but everyone has a part to play at reducing our collective litter footprint.”

Teresa hopes a 2000 Sydney Olympics bottle cap she found earlier this year can be a lightbulb moment for people. Between that and collecting three different varieties of the same Masterfoods sauce packet in one day – it’s evident to her that once this litter is dropped, it’s here to stay. Even 20 years later. What’s more concerning is the bottle cap was still fully intact.

Bottle caps aside, Teresa loves that her office is the bushland. She sees every day spent outdoors connecting with volunteers as a good one and loves that educating all types of people on the sites that they’re litter collecting at, is a huge plus. In fact, she would love to extend that education more so to the next generation.

“You see kids get so excited, and they just connect with the nature around them. It seems innate for people to pick up rubbish when they’re young, and then something happens in between then and adulthood. There seems to be a disconnectwhere people stop caring or think ‘it’s not my problem’. I’d love to be able to foster that sense of youthful enthusiasm for nature and keep that going through till later in life.”

For now, the 27-year-old loves that working in nature offers her something new every day.

Each day you turn up to work and experience something new or unexpected. One day there was a kookaburra hanging out inside the team vehicle, and the next day I bumped into Malcolm Turnbull while cleaning a beach! It’s amazing just being a part of something that’s so dynamic and alive.”

To read more from the Georges River community, go to The Campfire:

READ MORE ABOUT THE GEORGES RIVER ON THE CAMPFIRE