Dr Amanda Valois - Voices of the Kaiwharawhara
Interviews and text by Janel Hull
Dr Amanda Valois is a freshwater scientist studying how plastics enter our streams and what we can do about it.
Dr Amanda Valois, freshwater scientist, is researching plastics in the Kaiwharawhara Stream. Photo: Amanda Valois
Lolly wrappers cling to streamside trees in Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush, tools sink near a construction site, and plastic packing tape sticks to the banks of a nearby business. Each stretch of the Kaiwharawhara tells a different story about plastics.
Dr Amanda Valois has made it her mission to understand what plastics are in the Kaiwharawhara, how they impact ecosystems, and what we can do about it.
Since 2019, Amanda and a group of citizen scientists have worked together to walk 30 metre stretches of the stream searching for plastic. Each time they find a piece of rubbish, they categorise it, weigh it, then recycle what they can. Amanda explains that their research accounts for “over 100 different categories of litter.” She’s found everything from TV sets to refrigerators to styrofoam. It is quite the scavenger hunt!
As a freshwater scientist, Amanda is worried about how these big plastics can break down into even smaller microplastics, causing health problems for both people and wildlife. One day in the stream, she noticed that “algae was growing on styrofoam and then stoneflies were eating the algae on it.” These tiny pieces of plastics could be “transferring up the food chain” as stoneflies eat algae, fish eat stoneflies, and humans eat fish.
Stoneflies feeding on algae coated styrofoam, ingesting tiny pieces of microplastics that may stay in ecosystems. Photo: Amanda Valois
To learn more about these microplastics, Amanda also collects water samples in the stream. Her team then takes the samples back to the lab to analyse them under a microscope, identifying each fleck of plastic. She’s hopeful that her research will help us understand two missing pieces of the puzzle — what plastics enter the stream and how they break down into smaller pieces.
Unfortunately, there is no simple fix for the plastics problem. The majority of litter Amanda finds are recyclable plastics.
“We’re not gonna be able to recycle our way out of this problem, because recycling isn’t working — not in Wellington and not in New Zealand — the recyclable stuff is still ending up in our rivers and oceans”
Although undertaking the plastics problem can sometimes feel like a daunting job, Amanda is reminded how important her work is by a very special eel.
“At the bottom of the catchment, just behind the body shop” Amanda monitors one of her dirtiest stream sites. She regularly finds big pieces of pallet wrap and chunks of styrofoam.
This stretch of stream is an unlikely home to a beautiful old female tuna/eel. Amanda marvels that “she could have been around for 60 years,” far longer than Amanda herself.
When Amanda is having a particularly frustrating day, moments with incredible creatures like this fill her with a deep sense of responsibility. She is reminded that “for those few animals that have to live in that site and that river every day, cleaning up can change so much for them.” “For her and her habitat, I think cleaning up means everything.”
Listen to Amanda talk about her special relationship with a local tuna.
Amanda believes that every Wellingtonian has a part to play in a plastic-free future. “Sometimes 50% of the plastics I find are single-use plastics” so nature lovers can play their part by “reducing the amount of single-use plastics you use” and finding reusable alternatives. Since starting her plastics journey, Amanda has sworn off takeaway coffee cups and started dining in more instead of getting takeaways. She’s enjoyed how even these little changes like these help her slow down and be present in her everyday life.
She’s also found a deep sense of community through partnering with other community members to clean up the stream. “Wellington is fabulous for cleanups and anybody can organise a cleanup or you can get involved with Sustainable Coastlines as well as Conservation Volunteers.”
With all Wellingtonians pitching in to reduce and clean up plastics in the stream, Amanda is hopeful that the Kaiwharawhara will be a better place for the communities of stoneflies, eels, and people that call the catchment home.