500,000 turn out for great Australia clean-up

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The Independent Online
Australians heeding a round-the-world sailor's call to clean up their country found a woman's decomposing body yesterday, while the premier of New South Wales, John Fahey, will have tests after pricking his finger on a used syringe.

A family of three volunteers found the dead woman at Chinaman's Beach, near Sydney. A police spokesman said the body had been in the water some time.

Mr Fahey, meanwhile, will be tested for a possible viral infection, although an Aids specialist said there was no risk of contracting HIV.

About 500,000 people volunteered to help to clean up their neighbourhoods yesterday, with the more adventurous using scuba gear in harbours and rivers. They had a herculean target - to clear 30,000 tons of plastic, polystyrene, glass, beer cans, cigarette butts, syringes, condoms, abandoned cars and other rubbish from streets, forests and waterways.

Since 1989, when 40,000 people collected 5,000 tons of rubbish around Sydney harbour, the annual clean-up has widened to the whole of Australia and beyond. Last year, Australians picked up 20,000 tons of waste. They were joined by an est- imated 35 million people in 95 other countries.

Ian Kiernan, inspiration for Clean Up the World Day, is best known as the man who pounced on the Prince of Wales's would-be assailant during an Australia Day ceremony in Sydney in January last year. He was there because he had just been named Australian of the Year for his one-man clean-up campaign.

Yesterday's Clean Up Australia Day, the sixth, was the most politically charged. The country is one of the developed world's worst greenhouse gas emitters and one of the biggest producers of domestic waste, and its urban coastlines and marine life are being severely damaged by sewage and industrial effluent.

A report last month revealed 6,500kg of cyanide was released into the ocean near Sydney last year from sewage outfalls near Bondi and three other beaches.

Mr Kiernan, 54, gave up his building business to work full-time on the campaign, which is still run from his small Sydney office. Sailing single- handed around the world in the 1987 British Oxygen Corporation Challenge, he was confronted by oceans polluted with plastic bottles, cans, nappies and other debris. "I realised how much I'd been a vandal myself. I'd grown up without an environmental education, and used to throw my rubbish over the back of my boat in plastic bags."

Back in his home city of Sydney, he turned his yachtsman's tenacity towards organising a clean-up of the harbour and foreshores. He now has specific targets. The first is to stop animal sewage and waste water run-off from Sydney's Taronga Zoo contaminating foreshores and beaches near by, where pollution has reached dangerous levels. As a result of lobbying, the zoo's 1918 water treatment system will be replaced by one that recycles waste water.

Mr Kiernan is astonished by the international response. The United Nations has funded one-fifth of this year's US$500,000 budget, and the rest comes from sponsors in the US. In South Korea, where he says 9.5 million people turned out last year, he is recognised in the street. He will travel to Poland, Ukraine and Latvia this year.

To critics who say his campaign is little more than a cosmetic exercise, leaving the real causes of pollution unchecked, he says: "People have always looked at black rivers and grey air and thought, `It will always be like that,' but I think we can plant a spark to make them think differently."