The team from Outback Cleanups Australia are on a mission to make the nation spotless, and they’ve already picked up over 60,00kg of rubbish from the most remote locations in the country.
The Problem of Plastic
When we think about the world’s plastic pollution problem, we usually picture the ocean. Microplastics floating on the water’s surface creating a chunky soup, turtles with straws painfully lodged up their nose, seabirds strangled by plastic from the inside and out.
It’s not often we cast our minds to the outback. The deserted rocky red plains, the scrubby bushland, or the empty sand dunes – remote areas, which despite being far from any sizable town or city, still face a rubbish issue, just a much more silent one.
Lucky for Australia, there’s a pair of true-blue legends who are on a mission to clean up the whole damn nation.
Outback Cleanups Australia
Meet Boe Langford. For the last two and a half years Boe’s worked full time driving around the country picking up the rubbish someone else has left behind. Teaming up with his partner Kimberley 18 months ago, the pair run their not-for-profit organisation, Outback Cleanups Australia (OCA), which has recently become a charity, and is now able to take donations.
‘We want to get Australia rubbish free, it’d be amazing. My end goal is to one day go out bush and not find any rubbish and actually just be able to have a day off without picking anything up,’ Boe said.
I gave Boe a buzz last week when he finally got back into reception. He and Kim had been out bush in the northernmost reaches of Western Australia for the past few weeks and had recently arrived in Derby on the West Coast.
Boe had just dropped off a load of rubbish at Derby tip, and was sitting inside his 30 year old Landcruiser, no air-con to speak of, a freshly cracked beer in his hand.
I told ya he was true blue.
How did Outback Cleanups Australia come about?
Boe spent his formative years between Minatabie, a tiny outback opal mining town in northwest South Australia, and the coastal town of Second Valley, learning to love both the outback and the ocean. He got involved with Sea Shepherd and co-founded Out West Ambition, having grown a deep admiration for the natural beauty of Australia paired with an innate desire to keep it that way.
So when he finally set off on his long awaited road trip (delayed by two separate traumatic injuries – a broken back and smashed in face) he was pretty shocked by the amount of rubbish he found along the way.
‘When I arrived in Esperance I spent three days at the library, spending $20 a day to use their facilities just to find who I could call [about cleaning up the rubbish] and if there was anyone who’d do it.’
When he realised the main organisations people are familiar with, Keep Australia Beautiful and Clean Up Australia, don’t really do the hard yards out in the bush, he pretty quickly knew what he had to do.
‘I thought, hang on, I love travelling, I’m switched on enough to get my car out of situations, let’s give it a crack! So I went into Esperance and bought and registered the business name. It sort of all happened within a week and to be honest, it hasn’t stopped!
‘Since January 2019, we’ve moved over 60,000kg. We do about 100kg a day, so we try to average half a tonne a week.’
Some big changes have been made since then; Boe’s partner Kim has jumped on board, they’ve started selling upcycled OCA bags Boe designed himself to fund their travels, and the organisation has become charitable, meaning there’s now an eight member strong board involved, featuring both Boe and Kim’s Mums – it’s a family affair!
But Boe’s super amped on scaling up the mission by getting a few extra pairs of hands in the trash. At this stage it’s just Boe and Kim on the ground, and even if they’re keen to pick up rubbish forever, there’s only so much trash their trailer can hold!
‘We’re really restricted so we have to focus on prioritising cleans. We definitely need to expand and that’ll only come through funding so that’s the reason for becoming a charitable organisation.
‘Ideally our end goal is to have 50 people running across Australia in numerous vehicles doing remote rubbish clean ups.’
You Can Find Rubbish Anywhere if You Look Hard Enough
‘There’s not anywhere that’s free of plastic so wherever we go there’s work to do.’
The crew’s slogan is ‘Beach – Bush – Marine’, the three environments where they focus their clean up efforts, with a particular emphasis on the remote and hard to reach places. Ya know, the spots other beach clean up initiatives wouldn’t dream of visiting.
The pair recently trekked to Honeymoon Bay in WA, around 25 clicks further north of Kalumburu, the most remote coastal town in the country. Boe reckons it’s the most remote place he’s visited where he was still shocked by the amount of rubbish.
‘Kimberely and I spent three days and removed 449kg of rubbish. About 98% was from Australians and about 2% was washed in from overseas. I’m more thinking it’s from Australians who’ve just thrown stuff over while they’re fishing and it’s just washed back in,’ Boe said.
He recounts the dead sea life he’s encountered – two dolphins, three seals, and more fish than he could poke a rod at – often not a scratch on them, but stomachs filled with plastic.
But Boe knows our coastlines aren’t the only environment being strangled by plastic pollution. Turns out rubbish is killing animals inland as well.
‘We get lizards stuck in cans, emus getting tangled, kangaroos with glass in their feet and they’re just hopping along.’
Boe told me about an emu he chased for four kilometres that had plastic wrapped around its lower neck and shoulders, but he couldn’t manage to catch it.
‘That’s probably the downside of the job, seeing wildlife get caught,’ he said.
Although Boe and Kim don’t spend eight solid hours a day bending down and picking up rubbish, once you factor in vehicle maintenance, driving, publicity and social media, plus attempting to expand the organisation, keeping the whole operation moving is certainly a full time job.
‘We pick up all the rubbish, put it in our bags, and each bag gets weighed every day. Then we sort through everything, and that’s the time consuming part – having to sort through every single thing and document it. What sort of waste it is, where it’s come from. That takes about six hours every three days,’ Boe explains.
It’s certainly a tedious task, but the sorting and documenting is possibly the most important part of the process and will be the element that helps stop rubbish ending up in these remote areas in the first place.
‘If we go out and we just clean up rubbish, all we’re gonna do is go out and clean up rubbish.’
‘If we can data map it and see where the rubbish is coming from, who’s polluting it, we can probably actually stop it at its source and stop it from coming out here entirely,’ Boe says.
He estimates on average the pair spend between two and six hours a day picking up, pulling out, and digging up rubbish. But it’s not all plastic bottles and discarded tinnies. The pair remove pretty much anything that’s a foreign object to the environment, which means things can get wacky.
‘Sex toys. They’re always weird. We probably find two dozen a year. And we find them in the most remote places, random places. And you always wonder, ‘Has someone been busted here and run and left it?’.’
Sawn-off shotguns, $100 notes, coins from South Africa dated 1890, and even a whale skeleton – Boe and Kim have seen it all. And they’ve got no plans to stop.
The Future of Rubbish
As Boe and Kim arrange to ramp up the number of hands on the ground, they also have hopes of kicking off educational programs at schools around the country, with an emphasis on kids in remote and regional areas.
‘That’s our main goal for next year. Go data monitoring, look at rubbish and where it’s coming from and do it with the kids, the next generation. Get their hands in the dirt and get the muscle memory of cleaning up rubbish,’ Boe said.
‘I’m still learning every day and if I can pass on what I’m learning and give it to an even younger generation, they can invest that into our country.’
It’s been a massive few years for Boe that’s seen his life change direction drastically. But I got the sense he’s right where he’s supposed to be. And for all of his clean up efforts over the last 2.5 years, Boe’s just been nominated for Young Australian of the Year for 2022. He got the email the day I spoke to him, and seemed a bit confused about it all.
‘It was a bit shocking for me to be honest. I’m just a bloke driving around, covered in sweat and picking up rubbish,’ he chuckled.
It’s a bloody huge mission Boe and Kim have set themselves, cleaning up the entire country, but it comes from a pretty humble and hopeful aim – to spend time in nature without having to think about rubbish.
‘We’re not in this to get rich or famous, we just want a country that’s clean. Australia is the best country in the world, I want it to look the best when people arrive here and be like, ‘Holy shit, there’s no rubbish, this is awesome!’