One tonne. That’s 1000kg. The weight of a small car. Or two grand pianos stacked on top of each other. That’s the amount of rubbish Huon Smith has collected from remote coastlines around Australia.
‘Is that rope?’
I look over to see what Huon’s pointing at. A big ol’ piece of the heavy-duty stuff – faded blue and as thick as my arm. And very well stuck between two rocks.
‘Uhh, I think so?’
‘Well, we’d better get it out then!’
We start by tugging at the rope, but it’s jammed, making for tougher competition than your standard tug-of-war game. Out comes the pocket-knife, and we saw away at the weathered plastic until the blade slips through the final strands. Our knuckles are bloody from pushing up against rocks, but Huon’s smile is bigger than a child’s in a sweet shop.
‘Chuck it on the back!’
His pack is already covered in bits of flotsam and jetsam – a decorative array of plastic water containers, hunks of rope and miscellaneous objects. This is only the first day of our three-day trek around the northern side of Wilsons Promontory.
Who is this guy?
Huon Smith is 20 years old and grew up in the Bass Coast Shire. He’s the picture-perfect definition of an outdoors frother – he makes his own surfboards from timber and resin and hikes them into the most remote locations to test them out.
Huon’s probably the most energetic person I’ve ever met, and hiking with him feels similar to taking a Golden Retriever for a walk – he legitimately runs in circles around me. Like, actual circles. Carrying a 20kg hiking pack. He’s also been vegan for the past three years, powered by the omega 3 in flax and chia seeds rather than the environmentally destructive fishing industry.
Huon always had a habit of collecting rubbish during his adventures. We met on an eleven-day hike in 2017, when we were both 16 years old. I remember him being absolutely stoked when he found a rusted old car bumper bar in the bush. He strapped it to the back of his pack, undeterred by its inconvenient shape and the fact he got stuck in the densely vegetated track every few meters.
When did he start counting?
‘Back in 2018, I was doing some hiking along the beach and ended up with a huge bag of rubbish. I thought it would be interesting to weigh it, see how much I’d carried out. After that it became a habit.’
Read more: Remember to leave no trace!
He didn’t start out with the goal to collect a tonne, instead it ‘kinda just happened.’
‘I hit 250kg and just wanted to keep going’, he says.
Huon has now collected nearly 1.3 tonnes of rubbish from remote coastlines around southern Victoria.
‘I started out going to spots where I knew there was a heap of waste washed up on the shore. Sometimes they took a lot of walking and rock scrambling to get to, so I had to do multiple trips to get them fully clean.’
Rock scrambling is a nice term for it. Huon’s a big fan of cliffs, so these generally aren’t the type of rocks you’d consider fun to ‘scramble’ along, especially dragging a hiking bag full of scraps.
‘Yeah, it can get pretty heavy. There’s a lot of shit to carry out.’
What’s the most difficult part?
Huon says cleaning up Cape Liptrap was one of his toughest missions.
‘It’s just so isolated, it takes a lot of walking to get out there. I’d be doing round trips of up to 25km long, carrying out pretty huge amounts of stuff.’
I ask how huge he’s talking.
‘Well, my heaviest haul was 52kg. But that included a 30kg fishing net which had to be dragged, making for tough going up the rocky cliff sides around the Cape Woolamai headland.’
What happens to the rubbish?
Huon chucks the rubbish in his ute tray and drives it home, where he sorts it in his backyard.
‘Some of it can be recycled, but a lot of it is too far gone and has to go to landfill instead. I stockpile what’s headed for the tip until I can get a full trailer-load, it’s cheaper that way.’
Huon’s mum, Claire, laughs as she shows me the pile of tyres and rubbish on their property.
‘He’s great at cleaning up the coastlines, but not so good at keeping the house tidy’, she says affectionately.
Does he do it all solo?
While much of Huon’s work has been done alone, he’s also enlisted the help of some passionate friends, and his trips can involve a combination of rubbish collecting, hiking, camping and even surfing.
‘Yeah, sometimes I’ll just chuck a board on the back of my pack and bring it along. It doesn’t weigh too much and it’s pretty great to enjoy a surf in these remote locations. It’s a special feeling.’
Huon’s passion for surfing and conservation connect in more ways than just sneaking in a cheeky wave on beach clean-ups. In 2019, he shaped a board made from old Styrofoam he found outside a factory.
‘I’ve made nearly ten boards now. I use timber rather than plastic to create strength, as it has a lower carbon footprint.’
‘I’ve pretty much cleaned up all of the remote coastlines around my local area, the Bass Coast and South Gippsland Shires. But during winter the tides generally wash up a whole lot more, so I’ll head out there again in spring.’
It’s great that legends like Huon exist, and are willing to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy into helping the environment. But the fact that the rubbish keeps on coming is reflective of a bigger issue.
Our oceans are filled with junk. Every year, eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the sea, harming marine life and spreading toxic microplastics throughout the environment. We need our governments and big businesses to focus on reducing their environmental impacts, through legislation and initiatives that encourage conscious consumerism and improved waste management.
And, as consumers, we need to make choices that align with the needs of our earth. Avoiding single-use plastics, choosing to re-use or buy second-hand, and making sure to dispose of waste correctly. I know you’ve heard it all before, but it’s an ongoing issue, and one that requires continued discussion.
So, thank you for listening to Huon’s story. Now it’s time, as Huon would say, to ‘spread the stoke’ and get out there and create your own.