Mountains to Sea

A project by Western Sydney Environmental Education Network

This project used nature immersion, waste-to-art making and community-based social marketing to actively engage 60 children from across the greater Sydney region to reduce school yard litter and stormwater pollution.

This cross-regional partnership program involved stage two primary school students from three different schools: one from the bushland Blue Mountains; one from urban Parramatta; and one from the coastal northern beaches of Sydney, NSW.

Before going on their journey from the ‘mountains to the sea’, all students conducted litter clean-ups and audits of their school grounds, removing this potential stormwater pollution from their catchments. They also answered a survey that revealed 60% of students believed that littering in their schools was a problem.

“The collaboration allowed achievement of more than the sum of our parts and lots of fertile ideas flowed. Some wonderful networks have been established and reinforced by this project and I absolutely plan to work with the network again.”
Julia Strykowski, Environmental Education Contractor

A group of 20 students from each school went on two excursions together over one month in late 2017, travelling outside of their regions to experience new natural environments: the world heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park; Lake Parramatta Bushland Reserve; and the rocky shore platforms of Narrabeen Headland.

During the excursions students participated in a range of activities including: guided nature walks with silent reflection and journaling; macroinvertebrate sampling; catchment mapping and a litter clean up.

They also participated in a waste-to-art making activity using an eel-shaped frame constructed from reclaimed waste, threading plastic bags they had rescued from Lake Parramatta into the frame to make ‘Neil the Eel’. Neil became the travelling mascot for the program and his body became covered in 90 eel-shaped handwritten waste-avoidance pledges from the students and other school students and teachers who later learnt about the program.

“The best practice project plan fits in well with what we need to report on in my workplace. I will add some additional elements and use it as my “go-to” planning document.”
Lisa Kollaras, City of Parramatta

School litter audits after the final excursion demonstrated a decrease in litter of at least 10% on school grounds. Attitudinal surveys were conducted three months after the final excursions, in the new school year after the Christmas/New Year holiday period. The results of the surveys suggested that students had sustained their litter-reduction behaviours, as only 28% of students felt that litter in the school was a problem, a 32% reduction from the pre-survey results.

“I haven’t littered [since] we made the promise”- Student at St Canices Primary School
“I have not littered once and I have picked up some rubbish on the playground because some other people have littered”- Student from St Monicas Primary School
“I have been using metal bottles at school and at home” – Student from St Roses Primary School

This post-survey also revealed that almost 95% of the students had remembered and enacted their waste-avoidance commitments to Neil the Eel. New behaviours adopted by the students included no longer littering, picking up other students’ litter and changing from plastic drink bottles to stainless steel.

“The best practice project guide was clear, logical and easy to follow. It helped the project team to be up and running to achieve the desired outcome and pay attention to getting the project from start to finish.”
Alina Tamrakar, Cumberland Council


  • Western Sydney Environmental Education Network
  • City of Parramatta
  • Cumberland Council
  • Blue Mountains Council
  • Northern Beaches Council
  • Australian Association for Environmental Education- NSW Chapter


  • A pre and post excursion survey was completed by the participating students. The pre-excursion survey showed us that 60% of students believed littering in their schools was “quite a big” or “very big” problem at school. After the two excursion days and hosting the traveling mascot, Neil the Eel, which had over 90 handwritten pledges on his body. Additional pledges were added by other students and teachers who later learnt about the program. The post-excursion survey was conducted by the original students. The results show that only 28% of students now see littering as a problem at their school;

  • Neil the Eel was the waste-to-art activity and a travelling mascot for the program; an eel shaped frame was designed and constructed from reclaimed waste, which was filled with rescued plastic bags. Labels (salvaged from used household milk bottles) were attached to Neil as a body covering. The “eel-shaped” labels were inscribed with a personal pledge written by each of the participating students.  There was great value in this activity which resulted in almost 95% of the excursion students who not only remembered their commitments three months later (post-excursion survey) but they also enacted them.


  • Over the project period, students were led through activities and discussions about what constitutes litter. We identified some misconceptions around organic food waste and paper (biodegradable) as litter, showcased alternatives to plastic and single use items like straws, plastic bags, and takeaway cup etc. Once the learning was established the students were able to self-reflect and gain insight into how their behaviours have contributed to litter in their environments. With opportunity and encouragement through nature play and outdoor experiences, each student become more connected to nature and identified how they can make small improvements for a big impact on their local and global environment;

  • Data sets were collected to highlight the students understanding and commitment to litter and stormwater pollution in their local and global environment. Each school group showed a significant improvement in their understanding of what litter is, how it impacts our natural environment, and how they can and will make a difference. Furthermore, the outputs of this project will continue to be used in a passive community engagement activity taking the learnings to the wider community to inspire change;

The following outcomes were unexpected by the project team and have led to further investigation by the project team to continue or expand the program:

  • There is continued usage of “Neil the Eel” as an ambassador for the issue of plastic pollution at future events, festivals, schools, education days;
  • Possible future of a “Mountains to Sea” style program run by one or more councils at the same locations, or expand to new areas to engage community there (in discussion);
  • Potential collaborations with the other project contributors and their wider communities including community groups (e.g. take3for the sea, Taronga Zoo, or Sydney Water);
  • Flow on effect of behaviour change within the students to their families, school community and wider community is being seen through anecdotal comments from non-affiliated groups ie. Other schools, local residents, Councillors. For example: additional pledges were added to Neil by students at each school who were NOT involved in the project- clear interest generated, call to action heard and extension of project outcomes achieved.


What didn’t go to plan:

  • Timing was a bit too tight on the first excursion day. This was amended for the second day and much more ‘nature play” and immersion experiences were incorporated;
  • Meetings among the group members was difficult due to location, time and work commitments and could not meet as planned in several instances.

What was harder than expected:

  • Allowing students time to “just be” in nature instead of doing activities;
  • Time available with each school was extremely limited due to locations across Sydney and travel times;
  • Organising online meetings between group members was very difficult and challenging.


  • More lead in time for everything- from planning to reporting, to school management on the day. Everything takes longer than expected, and to allow for this;
  • One team member’s role changed within their organisation due to council amalgamations; this made it difficult to commit time for the project. This is something that was that not considered at the beginning of the project;
  • Varying level of support from within workplaces for this AAEE NSW project. One team member attended independently of work; was supported for network meeting but not delivery days.

What the project team would do differently next time:

  • The project team would spend more time on site together to identify possible learning locations and site reconnaissance for familiarity with place values;
  • The project team would spend more time in project planning phase as well as discussing and identifying potential risks to the project including changing circumstances, weather limitations, tight timings, best use of limited time frames;
  • Collaborators are discussing options of running a larger project and allow student to immerse in nature- potential overnight stay included. Parramatta is well positioned in the middle of Sydney metropolitan area.


$1,500 cash, $4,010 in-kind contributions.

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