SeaToSource: How CVA empowers communities to protect Australia’s waterways

Conservation Volunteers Australia had the pleasure of presenting our paper about the impact our volunteering and community-led actions have had on plastic-pollution in Australian waterways at the 2024 OzWater conference in Melbourne – the largest water conference in the Southern Hemisphere!

Fanny de Busserolles (PhD), CVA’s Head of Experience, presented our paper, ‘SeaToSource: Empowering the community to protect waterways flowing into the Great Barrier Reef and Great Southern Reef’*.

This paper explores the serious issue of plastic pollution in our waterways, and CVA’s commitment to empower community-led action for our ocean, wetlands and rivers.

Plastic pollution in Australia: a challenge that requires collective action

Between 2020 and 2021 alone, Australians consumed almost 3.8 million tonnes plastic products (three times the global average)! This burgeoning consumption of plastics results in large quantities of plastic waste. Between 2020 and 2021, 2.6 million tonnes of plastic in Australia ended up as waste.

Currently, only 14% of this plastic waste is recycled and kept out of landfills. With this staggering amount of plastic waste produced some of it is bound to be mismanaged and leaked into the environment. In Australia, approximately 68% of mismanaged waste moving from land to sea is plastic. Addressing plastic pollution is a global problem that requires collective action.

CVA’s solution to Australia’s plastic pollution crisis

To tackle the pollution problem in Australia, CVA developed a nationwide community activation program: SeaToSource.

The project received grant funding from the Australian Government, and its approach involved leveraging the power of community action, collaboration, and citizen science to collect large amounts of data at a low cost and reduce plastic pollution at the source.

To ensure that the SeaToSource program had real-world impact and research application, CVA ran debris monitoring surveys. This data fed into CSIRO’s National Plastic Pollution Baseline Survey, which collects data to understand the scope, scale, and types of litter lost to the environment.

The SeaToSource program’s primary objectives

The SeaToSource program had two primary objectives:

  1. Collecting data to enhance our understanding of the extent, magnitude, and diversity of the types of mismanaged waste infiltrating our environment.
  2. Educating and empowering the community to take simple and impactful actions to mitigate plastic pollution.

The SeaToSource program concentrated its efforts in nine iconic urban centres, focusing on major catchment areas around the country that feed into the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Southern Reef which are home to a wide variety of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet.

A Summary of the SeaToSource Program Results

Over 3 years, the SeaToSource program achieved the following:

  • Involved over 10,600 volunteers across Australia and 50 of the nation’s largest businesses in community-led action at 690 events.
  • Prevented 380,000 pieces of waste debris from flowing into the nation’s Great Barrier Reef and Great Southern Reef.
  • Surveyed 1,237 hectares of waterways and coastlines and collected close to 19 tonnes of mismanaged waste.
  • Discovered that from the 380,000 pieces of debris collected, 79% was plastic!

An overview of the 8 key SeaToSource community activities

1. Debris monitoring surveys

The program’s debris monitoring surveys were run quarterly over the life of the program at 34 sites, following the methodology developed by CSIRO. The data gathered fed into CSIRO’s National Plastic Pollution Baseline Survey, to create a national picture of plastic pollution in Australia and measure change.

2. Community clean-ups

Several community clean-up activities were run to reduce debris loads in key catchments, identify debris sources, and raise community awareness.

3. National Day of Action

Every year, a flagship SeaToSource National Day of Action was organised to empower local communities to step-up and take action to protect their local waterways.

The events provided opportunities for organisations and communities to connect while educating and inspiring attendees to act on ocean litter.

In addition to the community clean-ups organised by CVA, stallholders were invited to participate in and facilitate a range of activities to instill appreciation for local coastal and aquatic spaces.

4. Corporate beach clean-up challenges

Each year CVA set a challenge to its corporate partners to come together to collect and sort as much mismanaged waste as possible within a few short hours in the lead up to Christmas. These events were used to encourage people to change their purchasing habits over Christmas, particularly regarding single use items and plastic gifts.

5. Litter Stopper App

During the program, CVA also partnered with Beach Patrol and Love Our Street (LOS), a network of volunteer groups in Victoria using the power of community spirit to clean local beaches and streets.

Using the LitterStopper app, created by Beach Patrol, SeaToSource volunteers were able to record information about their individual and group clean-ups in their own time and space.


6. Sea the Change Youth Art Competition

CVA also reached out to future generations to help spread the message about the importance of tackling plastic pollution, through our annual SeaTheChange Youth Art Competition.

The competition engaged 241 students from 36 schools across Australia and youth art entries. Students were encouraged to explore a plastic item and design an artwork showing how they would re-purpose or replace that object with a more ocean-friendly option, or, how they would inspire others to change their use of the plastic object.


7. Source Reduction Workshops

CVA organised and facilitated a series of source reduction workshops delivered both in-person or online in each river catchment area.

Participants were guided by CVA Project Officers and used the waste debris data collected throughout the program to identify the commonly found plastic items in their respective areas and the key barriers and opportunities for reducing plastic pollution.

8. Nature Ambassadors

A cohort of CVA volunteers took part in a pilot project that enabled them to become CVA Nature Ambassadors: everyday people wanting to do more for their local communities and waterways and to become nature stewards.

Nature Ambassadors participated in training on how to organise community clean-ups and how to collect data. Safety and volunteer management training for Nature Ambassadors was integral in delivering the National Day of Action each year, as well as inspiring action on reducing plastic pollution within their own networks.

Summary of the SeaToSource achievements

CVA believes that the SeaToSource program was a great success with substantial environmental, social and economic benefits.

  • Environmental benefits:
    The program cleared nearly 19 tonnes of mismanaged waste along nine river catchments across Australia, a vital effort in safeguarding our aquatic plant, animal and bird species and ecosystem health from the threats posed by plastic pollution. The program also educated and empowered over 10,600 individuals to take pro-active steps in creating a cleaner, healthier environment through action, awareness and behaviour change.
  • Social benefits:
    SeaToSource had a wide range of positive social impacts, ranging from providing a practical outlet to address climate anxiety, to offering social connections and empowering individuals to actively take action and lead change in their communities.
  • Economic benefits:
    Trained citizen scientists present a cost-effective approach to gathering high-quality data, extending geographical coverage within a condensed timeframe while promoting awareness, stewardship, and behavioural change. Furthermore, local councils have experienced cost savings in waste management at known pollution hotspots, beaches and parklands due to volunteers reducing their staffing requirements.

What’s next?

We are building on the success of the SeaToSource program, continuing to move upstream, by engaging our volunteers to tackle plastic pollution at the source: – in our own households.

The SeaToSource Plastic Waste Challenge

The SeaToSource Plastic Waste Challenge is a new app-led activity that’s fun, family-friendly and guides users on conducting an easy at-home waste audit to reduce each household’s plastic footprint.

The SeaToSource Plastic Waste Challenge is all about creating awareness, gathering data, and making an impact. Every home waste audit done in the app will help our research partners to gather data and insights on plastic consumption and how it can be minimised.

Besides cutting down on plastic consumption, the data we collect could provide the leverage needed to inspire and demand a more sustainable world from industries, governments, and corporations.

To get started, download the CVA app to conduct your own home plastic audit while accessing a range of conservation volunteering events near you!

Download the CVA App and get started now!

Are you interested in reading the SeaToSource paper?

CVA invites you to access the SeaToSource paper below to learn more about our work and how our community of volunteers and partners helped stem the flow of plastic waste into our ocean.

Interested in partnering with CVA? Chat with us today or contact: [email protected]

*SeaToSource: Empowering the community to protect waterways flowing into the Great Barrier Reef and Great Southern Reef – Renae Riviere, Britta Denise Hardesty, Audrey Barucchi, and Fanny de Busserolles.

Attachment: SeaToSource paper.

CVA empowers everyone to take action for nature

At CVA, we believe that everyone can take action for nature. We host a wide range of conservation volunteering events across Australia which you can take part in.

Australians can also download our CVA App and take part in app-led conservation initiatives at home, such as the SeaToSource Plastic Waste Challenge.

At CVA, we aim to make conservation a daily habit, and an integral part of everyone’s lifestyle. We hope you will join us in our mission to collectively transform our world for the better, starting within our homes.

Get started today!