Getting litter out of our waterways, for good

Seeing litter in a new light helps local waterways to thrive.

Project information

  • Name: Getting Litter out of our Waterways, for good
  • Lead: Yarra City Council
  • Location: Merri Creek and Yarra River
  • Themes: illegal dumping; litter and waterways; working with schools; public place art

Your parents probably told you not to play with rubbish. But schools across the City of Yarra are actively encouraging it. And parents can’t get enough of their rubbish creations.
From tiny penguins to voracious sharks, each litter sculpture draws public attention to the litter being dumped locally and its impact on local waterways.

Artworks were exhibited in schools and public places, like these Christmas trees outside Carlton Library, festively adorned with recycling.

“We have some beautiful spots along the Yarra River,” said Kirsty Richards, Waste Education Project Officer at Yarra City Council. “Unfortunately, we see a lot of rubbish in these areas – both from litter that flows in via the drainage system and rubbish dumped directly next to these waterways.

“We wanted residents and visitors to understand the consequences of littering – to see the connection between local litter and pollution of our waterways. We wanted them to see the small steps they could take to avoid littering and feel pride in their community, so they would be motivated to keep it clean.”

A smorgasbord of activities 

“The project ran for a year and we had loads of activities going on at the same time. We wanted to combine actions and messages across lots of different areas to boost the effects of our engagement,” explained Kirsty.

“As well as various art projects, we worked with 19 schools and early learning centres to teach them about litter, the benefits of recycling and what they could do to help. Waterwatch ran sessions on waterway health to help students understand the impact of litter on our waterways.

“Litter expeditions around the schools and along the Yarra River and Merri Creek opened student’s eyes to the range and amounts of littering that were happening every day. Some older students were lucky enough to canoe down the Yarra with the Fairfield Canoe Club, collecting litter along the way.

“After education and engagement, we got the kids moving – litter pick-up races in schools, climbing up and down hills and wading through grasses to collect litter by the Yarra River. Students recorded every bit of waste, from plastic bottles and fast food packaging to clothes and cigarette butts.

Connecting with the public 

“We partnered with Collingwood Childrens’ farm; a beautifully tranquil spot next to the Yarra with a strong ethos of caring for our natural environment. This was a wonderful way to connect with school groups, families and other visitors.

“We also worked with the Melbourne Farmer’s market, which is popular with residents and visitors all year round.

“Both places had lots of plastic bags and disposable coffee cups in their litter streams, so we encouraged visitors to bring their own. We installed bright, clear, attractive signs to catch people’s attention and help the message ring home.”

Spreading our message on social media

“We posted all the cool things happening locally on Facebook and Instagram and got a lot of local interest,” said Kirsty. “Our environmental warrior Calab got lots of likes for his war on cigarette butts in Richmond.”

A significant drop in litter

“We had a significant drop in litter at the Childrens’ Farm and the Farmers Market. Using the Local Litter Measurement Toolkit scale, litter in the farm car park dropped from 2 to 1 and in the farm itself from 1 to 0.

“We saw more visitors bringing reusable bags and coffee cups. Stallholder at the market were already committed to not using plastic bags and were happy to feel supported by the council in their approach.

“In schools, litter dropped from 3 to 1 or 0. The students were so engaged and excited to know they had the power to change their local environment. They found the activities memorable, which meant the message about recycling more and littering less was more likely to stay with them.

“Teachers told us they were even talking about it at home. Schools liked the combination of education, engagement and activities and have asked us to come back if we have similar projects running.

“I see litter in a whole new light.” Erin Schroeder, Year 9 and 10 Teaching and Learning Leader at Fitzroy High School. “Litter at Merri Creek and the Yarra dropped from 4 to 2. A good result but we need to keep reminding people not to litter if we want to keep litter levels permanently low."

Injecting new life into recycling

“This project was a great way for us to build relationships with different groups in Yarra,” said Kirsty. “It also invigorated our approach to recycling. In an interesting twist, the Fairfield Canoe Club ended up incorporating litter pick-up in their training, as it’s a serious test of canoe handling skills.

“Our economic development unit is now working with the waste minimisation unit on continuing education with businesses about recycling right and littering less, as part of what they do. The economic development unit made maps of retail areas for local residents, with images of Keep Cups for businesses that give discounts for bringing your own cup.

“The whole package worked together well – the education, sorting of recycling, learning about litter, seeing the litter flow into the Yarra and the Merri Creek, collecting it from canoes or on tours, and then making artworks with litter.”

Next steps

“This is the sort of campaign that needs to keep running to be effective,” said Kirsty. “I will keep delivering the project across different school years, particularly the art component. It was fantastic to display artworks in schools and I’d like to extend this to community areas, libraries, businesses and neighbourhood houses.

“I would love more funding to work with an artist or puppet maker to keep working with students in, what is for them, a very memorable activity. We could tap into digital media by making a video of puppets made from recycling to spread our message or a video journal of how students have grown in their awareness and activities.

“This project can be used as a template when talking to schools and community groups about involving students in improving recycling and reducing litter. To anyone looking to run a similar project, I say collaborate with anyone and everyone – schools, community and sports clubs, Neighbourhood Houses, businesses.

“In future we would like to partner with Waterwatch, Tangaroa Blue and CSIRO to boost the effectiveness. Although this would needsto fit in with their resources and timing.”

Further information

Contact Kirsty Richards, Waste Education Project Officer at Yarra City Council on (03) 9205 5785, email or visit