When I was in primary school, the teachers used to line us up after morning tea and lunch, and we’d sweep through the yard in a line and pick up all the rubbish. It was called the emu parade.

As a nine-year-old, I hated it. Stop playing cops and robbers, to pick up rubbish that I didn’t even drop?! Sucks! 

The thing is, it would only ever take a couple of minutes. A mere 100 or so seconds of incredibly efficient playground stewardship. After our initial whingeing, someone would always say or do something that was funny enough to forget about what we were doing and just get on with it.

And then, like a wand had been waved, suddenly the rubbish was gone. Many hands making light work. Back to class. 

I’ve always reflected on those emu parades as a stroke of pure genius by whatever teacher had first devised it as a strategy. Not only did it effectively clean up the yard that we all played in, but it also steered the divine rhythm of child mob psychology towards a direct and equal acknowledgement of our shared responsibility. And despite our relentless unwillingness to line up when the bell rang, I bet that the teacher knew that inevitably one of us would fart or make a silly noise, and suddenly we would then be laughing and having a good time doing an activity that had upon first impression seemed revolting. 

Fast forward a quarter century and I guess I’d have to now view all of that to have been a period of subliminally hardcore psychology imprinting, or some such. I mean considering the depth of the rabbit hole I now find myself in. My life savings and fifteen years of hospitality poured into a firetruck as old as I am, with enormous emus emblazoned on the side, and modified to burn used vegetable oil instead of diesel in the pursuit of wayward garbage that I didn’t create. 

The irony makes me smile. Roly the child, recalcitrant and disgruntled about being trapped in school and picking up rubbish; now Roly the adult, out and free in the big wide world of infinite choice… but genuinely wanting to pick up rubbish over pretty much everything else. 

I first thought of trading coffee for rubbish after selling my first cafe. It had been a slog, and I wanted to properly decompress after five long years of building from scratch, so I drove my ute to a remote beach up north for some camping. I had built Big Suse to be the ultimate seaside cabin that I could drive right up to the water, complete with a coffee brew bar and multiple lounge areas. The surf was flat, so Big Suse and I were exploring some sand dunes when the scale of the rubbish just hit me like a tonne of bricks. 

Pile after pile of forgotten material remains half-buried in the sand. Car bumpers. Cheap toilet seats. Camping furniture. Endless tangles of soft plastic bags so weathered that they disintegrate on contact. All sitting here in this one pocket, of one beach, in a country with tens of thousands of beaches. 

How could so much crap be somewhere so far from people, just leaking into the sea? And what does this mean for how much more is out there? 

I ended up spending a whole month in that one place, surfing in the morning and evenings, and spending all day in between picking up rubbish. By the time I left, I had filled about 30 old coffee sacks with all manner of shite off the beach. All up it weighed over a tonne. I left them by one of the park access gates for the rangers, who were hugely grateful for the effort, but deep down must have known (like I did) that it wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg. 

The work it’s going to take to fix our pollution problems was - and still is - going to need more hands. Way more. I began thinking hard about what I could do to help encourage others to get stuck in. 

Above all else, I had noticed that picking up rubbish as an activity had made me feel great. Mental health wise, I had accidentally ticked a lot of psychologically positive outcomes. I was off my phone, out in nature, doing a simple, mindful task that was recharging my batteries as effectively as anything else I had come across. 

I had no FOMO, no 24-hour news, no decision anxiety, and no countdowns until I could skip ads. Instead, I was banging out sunrise pourovers and afternoon latte art with sand under my feet and the ocean in my ears, doing something that I knew urgently needed doing. 

I’d seen enough documentaries showing dead animals full of plastic, so once I started pulling armfuls of rubbish off the beach, I didn’t want to stop. 

Maybe, once other people start, they won’t stop either. So how can I help them start? 

Suffice it to say it was a highly transformative trip and the formal rebirth of Emu Parade into my existence. The mission was clear: introduce as many people to the task at hand, in the hope that they too wouldn’t be able to unsee the extent of our rubbish crisis, and commit themselves to doing something about it. 

But I’m not a scientist, or a filmmaker, or any other person of knowledge and helpfulness. All I know how to do is make coffee. Hang on. A well-made coffee could be the perfect bribe. I’ll invite people down to the beach for a seaside cuppa, which they can pay for by doing an emu parade. Ok, but how will I make any money to support myself by doing that though? Doesn’t matter, I’ll figure that part out later. This is an emergency. 

As those of you who have seen Trish might imagine, quite a lot has gone down between then and now, as I suddenly had a rather large assignment on my hands. I needed a bigger truck, that I could convert to run on used cooking oil instead of diesel and recharge an enormous battery bank powerful enough to run a coffee machine and a fridge so that I could make coffee for people down at the beach. 

The thing is, I also wasn’t a mechanic, nor was I an electrician. Big Suse was beautiful on the eye, but in reality quite a crude assortment of recycled timber that I had mostly tec-screwed together on the back of an ex-mining utility aka a total vehicular lemon. This was going to take serious due diligence and fabrication. There was going to be a long way to go. 

As you will read about in the next chapter, I was right about that. Spoiler alert: there have been absolutely no shortcuts, and the journey has indeed woven longer and farther than I could have possibly imagined. 

But as of now, we have arrived, and it’s been absolutely, one thousand per cent worth it.

Words by Roland Davies.

Learn more about Emu Parade here.
Keep up with Emu Parade: @ep.cleanup


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