With an increase in sustainability education taking place in our schools and more awareness than ever about the effects of climate change, one would hope that litter would show some signs of decreasing. Sadly, not likely.

Compared to the previous year’s report findings, soft plastics increased to 34 per cent, a substantial 9 per cent rise, while hard plastics comprised 28 per cent of all surveyed litter, equating a 4 per cent increase for plastics overall.

Cigarette butts represented 16 per cent, an increase from the previous year, and ranked second only to soft plastic pieces in individual items reported by volunteers, followed by beverage bottles.

Vapes were collected at 22 per cent of surveyed sites, an increase from 2022 when vapes were found on only 10 per cent of surveyed sites.

With Schools Clean Up Day 2024 set for next Friday, March 1, and Clean Up Australia Day 2024, on Sunday, March 3, Clean Up Australia's chair Pip Kiernan is urging all Aussies to join with their local community and take immediate practical action to protect our natural environment in the face of our nation's growing waste challenges.

“For every piece of litter collected, it is one less in our natural surroundings,” Kiernan says.

In 2022/23 more than 4000 Australian schools participated in Clean Up Australia’s Schools Clean Up Day.

Registrations are open now and with early childhood kids, primary and secondary students welcome to participate, it is one of the most practical ways to engage and educate kids in litter prevention, sustainability, community and teamwork.

Jenny Geddes, CEO of Clean Up Australia, says last year 4776 schools got involved, a large portion on clean up Australia Day, but many doing their own cleanup on other days of the year.

“A lot of schools have this campaign really, downpat and mastered really well,” she tells EducationHQ.

“They might do a lesson in the morning, or wrap another initiative around the day, maybe a plastic-free lunch day or something like that, and then they go out and do the clean up.

“What we say with all ages is, once you’ve done a clean up, it really changes your relationship with litter and waste and you start to see it – and you also start to get a little bit annoyed about it. Which then translates into practical ongoing action.”

WA educator Jenny Bibard says her school’s ‘Climate Crew’ give up two recesses a week, conduct multiple meetings after school, and on weekends organise and attend fundraisers and clean up events. “They fill my cup with inspiration and hope for the future,” she says.

When a school registers, they simply let Clean Up Australia know how many students they have and the organisation then sends out a kit.

“In that kit are gloves of different sizes, so a glove size for the preschool students, because we do get quite a few preschool signing on, and then we have another size up for the mid-primary school kids, and then another side for the older kids as well.

“They get recyclable bags, they get a bag for products that they think they might be able to recycle, such as their containers, and instructions on how to do the clean up.”

Geddes says while schools are encouraged to participate next Friday, if they want to do it later in the year, given in some places of Australia it’s very hot and it might work better in winter, “that’s completely fine as well”.

It doesn’t matter when they’re getting involved, just as long as they are, she says.

Kiernan says, however, the schools-focussed national day prior to the broader Clean Up day has proven to be hugely important.

“Schools Clean Up is such a special day for the school community to band together for positive change, get kids out into their local environment and surroundings and is an experience that will likely stay with them and be passed back to their own families and friends,”  she says.

One school that’s really picked up the litter theme and run with it, is Duncraig High School in WA.

The school’s Sustainability coordinator Jenny Bibard says since 2020, they’ve participated in about 10 school clean up days, with several days of their own.

While many schools rely on the staffroom to provide the drive for best practice around sustainability and the environment, at Duncraig it’s students who’ve seized the initiative.

“Our Climate Crew students are definite climate champions,” Bibard says proudly.

“They give up two recesses a week, conduct multiple meetings after school time, and on weekends organise and attend fundraisers, clean up events and more.

“They’re constantly coming up with new ideas on how to keep our school beautiful, giving up their own time to sort out rubbish for litter audits, etc.

“They are the most inspiring students and I am very lucky to work with them, as they fill my cup with inspiration and hope for the future, every single week.”

Registrations are still open for Clean Up Australia’s Schools Clean Up Day on Friday, March 1 and the country’s largest community-based environmental event, Clean Up Australia Day 2024, on Sunday, March 3.

Bibard says because Clean Up Day is a national initiative, knowing that everyone in the country is rolling up the sleeves, is really motivating.

“I remember doing similar Clean Up Days when I was a little schoolgirl in France, and I still remember them to this day.

“It was one of my favourite days of the year because we knew the whole country were just putting on a dirty t-shirt, rolling up their sleeves and doing something good for the environment.

“You’re part of the bigger picture – you’re not just doing a tiny little effort, it feels like it’s a much bigger initiative.”

 Bibard says she sees the difference as a school compared to when they do their regular clean up events.

“The uptake is never as big as it is when it’s one the big clean up Australia Day

“With the national events, all of the students are way more engaged on those days.”

Numerous studies in recent years have revealed the extent of the concern young people have about the state of the environment.

Geddes says it’s clear young Australians and school children are deeply worried about the state of the planet they’re inheriting.

“I think what’s lovely about these clean up days is they’re becoming part of the solution,” she says.

“Yes, it is a big problem, but the days give you a sense that you can actually make a difference – and it’s a practical way of actually getting out and not just being concerned and worried about the problem, but actually really making a difference.

“And you can immediately see the difference you’ve made.

Geddes says on top of the clean up days, it’s also heartening to see students using new fun, sustainability-related, apps.

“One is a Cleanaway app called Greenius, which steps you through recycling behaviours and gives you an interactive way of looking at what can be recycled,” she says.

“And there’s another one called Recycle Mate, which works on artificial intelligence, where you can take a photo of a pen, and it’ll tell you if can it be recycled, and it give some ideas on where to actually take it to be recycled.”

It’s not too late to register for next Friday’s Schools Clean Up Day.

The National Litter Report can be viewed here.