One man’s mission to clean up New Zealand’s beaches continues

Published 10/09/2020

Des Watson talks to us about his journey to clean the beaches of Aotearoa.

One mans's mission to clean up New Zealand's beaches continues

By Jim McNaughton

The December 2019 issue of Kaitiaki Wai featured a story about Des Watson, a man from Rarangi Beach, near Blenheim, who decided to spend a small inheritance on a trailer so he could travel around New Zealand beaches picking up rubbish, and raise public awareness about the magnitude of the problem as he went.

Last October, after speaking to us, he headed off to tackle the rest of the North Island—a mission documented on his Facebook page, Kiwis clean Aotearoa.

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Des Watson passed through Wellington on his way to clean beaches along the Kapiti Coast and beyond.

He worked his way around Cape Palliser and then on to Castlepoint. From there, he travelled up to Hawkes Bay and found a lot more litter than he had on Wairarapa beaches. After a tough stint, he realised he needed a wellbeing break and headed across to Raglan.

Covid-19 forced a change of plan. With Alert Level 4 looming, he left Raglan and gone home to Rarangi Beach for lockdown.

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Your choices impact our waterways: Des’s Facebook page, Kiwis clean Aotearoa, documents his massive cleaning and awareness-raising effort. 


Des returned to Wellington in June, and was cleaning a beach in Seaview when we caught up with him again. He looked fit and well but said that returning to Wellington had been a bit confronting. “I feel I could spend my entire life cleaning up the harbour beaches alone. There’s so much micro plastic around Seaview Marina rock walls. Some of the plastic just breaks up in a cloud in my hand and I have to hold my breath to stop breathing it in. I’ve been picking up a thousand pieces a day here.”

He led me to a small beach near the sea wall and started picking though the sand. Seeing the amount of plastic fragments he found in a square metre was eye-opening, and spoke to the huge numbers of plastic and micro plastics reported in the sea—a study in 2015 estimated about 150 million metric tons had accumulated in the world’s oceans. Assuming business as usual, that amount is estimated to grow to 600 million metric tons by 2040. “Micro plastic is getting everywhere,” Des said. “You have penguins, whales, dolphins, orca, kai moana here in Wellington. It’s not a healthy combination.”

Des said Hutt City Council’s initiative to install ‘litta traps’ in street drains in commercial areas, to catch litter before it enters the stormwater network, was great to see. “It’ll help a lot. Good on them.”

While Des sees consumer behavioural change as vital to reducing litter, he believes the heart of the litter problem lies with plastic packaging. “I’d like to see consumers have a lot more choices around product packaging when they walk into a supermarket. There’s way too much single-use plastic. Supermarkets and the whole industry should be more responsible. They’re not making the right choices for our planet, so they need to be regulated.”

Des said that consumer choice drives change, and that people should be thinking about what they throw out. “I’ve picked up hundreds of straws. If people really need a straw, they can use a biodegradable one. Getting takeaway outlets to go biodegradable would be fantastic, too, because those straws are more likely to end up in the stormwater system.” He recommends straw-makers, Straw the Line NZ and, back at his trailer, he gave the community engagement team a few samples. We’re pleased to report that the straws work perfectly and that kids love them

Straw the Line’s raw straws are 100% biodegradable and come in 8 awesome colours.

“I’m trying to look on the positive side,” Des said. “Make some noise, and hopefully people will listen.”

Des supplies a key-ring maker in Christchurch with hard plastic he picks up, and is collecting bread tags for the community organisation, Bread Tags for Wheelchairs NZ, who facilitate the sale of products made of recycled plastic tags to fund wheelchairs for people in need. Check out the project at

He adds his plastic tally to Raglan Food Co.’s 1 Million Pieces of Plastic project “It’s really good to feel you’re part of a bigger movement,” he said.

Next are the beaches of Kapiti, then Taranaki and across to East Cape before heading further north. He’ll be picking up rubbish six hours a day for the next few months. That’s a lot of rubbish. “The thing that really keeps me going is the people of Aotearoa. Their amazing support and generosity are inspiring.”