An environmental crisis threatening south-west beaches helped distract a woman facing her own personal challenge. Journalist SIAN JOHNSON discovers how the community rallied behind her.
Facing brain surgery forces you stop and assess your life, those who have been through it say. You examine both what you’ve done and what you’re going to do if you get through the experience in good health.
For Warrnambool filmmaker Colleen Hughson, that reflection in part propelled her into leading a community campaign that took charge cleaning up after a significant environmental spill on a local beach and led to other positive changes.
The group Ms Hughson started to coordinate efforts – Good Will Nurdle Hunting – developed a life of its own and now connects more than 800 community members who collect and discuss plastics in marine environments and work on creative projects.
Throughout 2017, Ms Hughson had been collecting plastic sticks – believed to be from cotton buds – and other plastics from Warrnambool’s Shelly Beach and posting on social media.
Ms Hughson said focusing on collecting the plastics kept her occupied as she prepared for daunting brain surgery in October for a benign tumour. “When I was thinking about plastic on Shelly Beach I wasn’t thinking about what I was going into,” she said.
Last November, a month after her brain surgery, which left her temporarily unable to walk and affected her hearing and balance, she started noticing large quantities of small plastic pieces washing up. Research revealed they were nurdles – microplastic pellets used to manufacture other plastic products.
A concerned Ms Hughson approached Wannon Water, the authority that runs the Warrnambool Sewage Treatment Plant. The plant discharges treated water into the ocean at Shelly Beach under a strict Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) licence.
On November 21, Wannon Water revealed the nurdles had passed through its plant and said it had alerted the EPA, and the environmental watchdog began investigating.
Textile artist Megan Nicolson – a friend of Ms Hughson – was one of the key people involved from the beginning.
She said her friend’s “amazing energy” kept people motivated and working together.
Hundreds of volunteers spent hours at the beach in the days and weeks after the spill using buckets and sieves to separate and remove the tiny plastic pieces just a couple of millimetres in length.
The Good Will Nurdle Hunting page became a community hub for people to share where they had picked up nurdles and how many they had collected.
Days after the spill, Terang College students took a bus all the way to Shelly Beach to lend a hand. Many other south-west schools did the same, with teachers educating students about ocean plastics.
Nurdles are a global issue, with groups overseas working to prevent the pellets spreading and washing up on beaches.
The Warrnambool spill was declared a state emergency at the end of November, and a multi-agency team was set up to manage the clean-up and prevent further contamination. It was estimated 40 litres of the pellets had spilled, with a further 700 litres identified within the treatment plant.
Authorities also played a substantial role in the clean-up, however, continuing investigations by Wannon Water and the EPA have not yet identified the original source of the nurdles.
As the issue fell out of the spotlight, Ms Nicolson was among those creating work that would continue the conversation about the impact of ocean plastics.
Through the cleaning up that took place with the nurdle collection, more than 20 kilograms of plastic fishing rope was also picked up, and the artist has been working with the material to create woven pieces.
“A lot of my other work was always about place or nostalgia whereas this has got some more meaning to it,” she said.
Ms Nicolson said the process of collecting the rope was important considering the harm it can do to marine life such as seals and whales.
“I love the idea of taking it and I clean it and pull it all apart. There’s something cathartic about unknotting it then putting it into colours and looking at it and creating these vessels.”
She said when people found out how the pieces were made they were amazed and appreciated their ecological value.
A 2014 CSIRO study found about three-quarters of rubbish on coastlines around Australia was plastic, with most coming from local sources.
Ms Hughson believes the incident will have a lasting impact on the community’s understanding of plastic pollution.
“Once people started searching the beaches for nurdles a whole lot of other plastics were found and removed from our beaches,” she said.
“The other plastics have always been there but now there’s just a lot more awareness and more people are getting into the habit of picking it up off the beaches.”
Ms Hughson is continuing her recovery and has been experimenting with creative pursuits, making earrings and ephemeral art pieces from the plastic collected from beaches.
“When you’re facing something like brain surgery, it does come up, you think ‘what have I been doing with myself?’,” she said. “I’ve done something I think is worthwhile.
“How many people had even heard of the word nurdle before November? Only a few of us, and now it's become part of the Warrnambool vocabulary.”