Environment activist Elizabeth Jensen

Elizabeth Jensen has achieved a lot in her working life, including a stint as president of the Council on the Ageing Victoria, the peak body for older Victorians. But the impact of her work as an environmental volunteer may just eclipse her professional triumphs.

Elizabeth has led a campaign that has seen Bayside Council ban single-use plastics in all its buildings. Tenants along the foreshore, including cafes, must now also reduce waste as part of their lease agreements with the council.

‘You don't want the next generations to be saying, “Look at the mess your generation left behind for other people”,’ Elizabeth says. ‘I think older people need to really seriously think about what legacy we're going to leave.’

Post retirement, Elizabeth and her husband David, became involved in Marine Care Ricketts Point through their interest in snorkelling. Elizabeth soon became president of the group of volunteers, which is promoting the wellbeing of the Ricketts Point Marine Sanctuary.

The 115-hectare sanctuary stretches three kilometres along the coastline between Table Rock Point in Beaumaris and Quiet Corner in Black Rock.

3193 BeachPatrol

Elizabeth’s first major project was prompted by concern at the amount of rubbish being washed up on the beach.

She set up a group called 3193 BeachPatrol – 3193 is the local postcode – that meets on the first Saturday of the month to pick up rubbish.

‘Over a number of years, we've been collecting data and putting it into a website, and we could see how much plastic we were collecting,’ she says.

‘You'll get bottles and other things but the primary thing that we collect is plastic. And I've started to read more and more about the effects of plastic on marine life.

‘Rays and fish get it caught around their gills and the birds in the sanctuary get plastic caught around their necks or wings. Animals are injured all the time.

‘Also, birds and fish consume the plastics. They think they're little bits of jellyfish and things like that, and so much ends up in their stomach that they can't actually feed any more. It blocks their whole intestinal system.’

Plastics impact on the whole food chain

The impact is not restricted to birds and marine life, Elizabeth also discovered the impact of plastics on human health.

‘Plastics take 400 years to break down in the environment and, during that time, as they become smaller and smaller, they become more likely to be ingested in the food chain.

‘Toxic metals adhere more easily to plastic than other things. So, when the fish ingest them, then we ingest the fish, so we’re ingesting these toxic chemicals as well.

‘By 2050, the World Economic Forum estimates that there'll be more plastic in our oceans by weight than fish.’

Alerted to these disturbing facts, Elizabeth noticed how many of her local community facilities were using disposable plastics.

Prevention trumps recycling

‘Over 95 per cent of the pollution in Port Phillip Bay comes from within the catchment area through the Yarra River, through the storm water drains. We've really got to act.’

Elizabeth approached her local Bayside City Council councillor and told him: ‘We've really got to stop the waste, not just recycle it, actually stop it, because plastic is the most difficult thing to recycle.’

When told she needed to show there was widespread community support for the move, Elizabeth swung into action, reaching out to local groups such as Universities of the Third Age, and co-opting friends to contact sporting and local environmental groups.

‘All 17 of those groups agreed to write letters of support,’ she says.

‘We came up with a proposal where, by the end of June 2019, the council offices and council libraries will have completely eliminated all single use plastics from their premises. And then, by the middle of June 2020, all council facilities, like the community centres and sports groups and that sort of thing, will have eliminated all those plastics.

Community support is key

‘The reception to this has been absolutely wonderful. I've had so many emails of support from people saying what a terrific thing this is.’

Elizabeth is hopeful there will be less litter on the beach this summer as a result of the initiative but says the benefits are personal as well as environmental, with the campaign helping her to engage more with her local community and make some really good new friends.

‘I'll be 69 later this month and it really keeps me looped in with younger generations,’ she says.

‘I'd just like to emphasise what a positive experience it's really been. I would encourage other senior people to think about what’s your passion and use it to make a contribution to your community and to make new friendships.’

Click here to find out more about Beach Patrol 3193.