environment

‘Unacceptable’ industrial plastic waste in Auckland waterway

Microplastic waste seen washing into a waterway from a manufacturing plant's stormwater drain has been called totally unacceptable by the local board chair

Waste from a plastic tank manufacturer was seen washing into a waterway that feeds into Auckland's Manukau Harbour.

The Wiri-based company, Bailey Tanks, has previously been fined $750 for discharging polyethylene granules to land. 

Local Shaun Lee said he’s seen plastic pellets on the banks of the stream several times since 2017. Each time he’s called Auckland Council. He believes the pellets, sometimes referred to as nurdles, are used in the manufacturing of the tanks. In total, he’s reported issues around six times.

During recent walks he’s seen the plastic pellets, which look a little like hail or fish eggs, piling up in the yard during Auckland’s dry spell. 

“I was quite worried. I knew we were going to have a big rainfall event and all of this pollution was going to be swept into the ocean.”

Microplastics - plastics smaller than 5mm - are a pollution issue and are eaten by fish and shellfish. For marine creatures and birds it's been shown to block digestive tracts, sometimes causing starvation. One study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and conducted by the University of Newcastle estimates humans inadvertently consume up to the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastics a week. 

Plastic pellets, or nurdles, are the building block for many plastic products. They're melted or shaped into an array of goods from plastic bottles, to water tanks. Pollution caused by the pellets entering waterways is a global problem. It's estimated around 230,000 tonnes end up in the ocean each year. In the United States one company found guilty of repeated pollution faced a possible penalty of $256 million. It settled the case for $79 million.

Lee returned during weekend rain and saw some pellets were washing into the stream.

“What I was more shocked by was this fine powder or dust sitting on top of the water. When I had a closer look at it I realised it was made of plastic.”

Lee videoed it and took a sample from the stream home. Close-up photographs show a layer of tiny bits of plastic on the sample.

He’s concerned the previous $750 fine issued in May 2017 hasn’t had enough effect on Bailey Tanks and the amount isn’t enough of a disincentive.

“I’m worried these companies see the fine as a cost of doing business and they don’t take them seriously.”

Close-up of a sample of the water in the stream on February 22. Photo: Shaun Lee

Lee reported the matter to Auckland Council.

Auckland Council's manager of compliance response Max Wilde said an officer visited the site on Saturday at 12:51pm.

"The council officer inspected the stormwater drains leading from 36 Ash Road Manukau. The stormwater drains were running clear and there was no evidence of a discharge of plastic pellets or plastic powder at the time of inspection ... The council officer then conducted a site visit of 36 Ash Road and found the water in the drains on site were running clear and were covered by woven mesh to catch any loose plastic pellets."

The officer noticed water in the culvert was an unusual colour, but PH testing showed no abnormal results. Wilde said the council was still investigating the incident.

Newsroom visited the site on Wednesday and found plastic pellets at one stormwater exit and a line of plastic dust visible on the ground at the stormwater outlet. Bailey Tank's yard has several plastic pellets visible on the ground.

From left: Plastic pellets found by the stormwater outlet after Auckland Council's visit. Plastic dust line visible by the outlet. Bailey Tank's premises with white pellets on ground visible. Photos: Farah Hancock

Local board chair Joseph Allan has asked for the matter to be escalated within the Council so it is investigated as a priority.

He said locals have been working hard to improve the health of the stream.

“The health of our water is really important for us as a local board and for our community. We’ve done a lot of work on planting up in Tōtara Park in the headwaters of the Puhinui stream and we’ve done planting further downstream for inanga spawning ... to have this sort of thing happening in the middle of it is totally unacceptable.”

The water from Bailey Tank's stormwater drain flows into the Manukau Harbour. Image: Supplied

Plastics New Zealand’s Simon Wilkinson said the Resource Management Act is clear nothing other than clean water should be going down drains. He works for council running voluntary educational programmes.

“They [companies] should be treating plastic as a pollutant like they would an oil, or a chemical. So doing everything they can to keep outside areas clean, prevent it from entering stormwater drains onsite and having some sort of measures in place if there is an accidental spill or discharge that catches it within the stormwater system.”

He said Auckland’s unitary plan has rules around what needs to be in place on industrial sites. 

“It’s whether or not rules are being enforced. That’s my question.”

When asked if Bailey Tanks might be an aberration, or if it were likely to be a widespread problem, he said while 68 companies had been through a programme called operation clean sweep, run by Plastics NZ, the plastic industry association, not all manufacturers were association members.

“There’s definitely a need for something that will pull those guys up to speed as well.”

Lee, who is a citizen scientist and champions conservation efforts is concerned there may be more manufacturers like this, contributing to a slow buildup of microplastics in the environment.

“The particular company’s storm water outlet is quite visible. I worry that we’re having similar issues with other manufacturing companies.”

Bailey Tanks said it has not been contacted by Auckland Council regarding an incident on the weekend and declined to answer further questions saying it would deal with council directly. 

Newsroom has requested information about the number of complaints Auckland Council has received regarding plastics entering waterways from business premises and the outcome of complaints.

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