Drain Stencil Project
Rent our EqupmentRequest an Event


Our Mission 

By mixing art and education, the Drain Stencil Project teaches the community that our neighbourhoods are connected to the ocean via the urban stormwater drain system. We bring the community together to spray paint the message “Drains to the Reef” next to our waterways and create informed advocates for our waters, and leave a physical, long-lasting message behind for the entire community.

What’s the Problem?

Every hour, 1580kg of plastic waste enters Australian oceans – much of this making its way from land through our drains and creeks. There are more than 260 drains and waterways in the Cairns Region that flow out to the Great Barrier Reef. When it rains a variety of rubbish, oils, pesticides, and fertilisers are carried down the drains and into our local creeks that flow to the Ocean. This stormwater is not treated, nor sieved for items that shouldn’t be in there (like plastic). Dirty drains seriously damage our marine environments, and also increase our risk of floods on land. Luckily, most littering can be easily prevented, and just requires a bit of care and responsibility. This project shows our community why we should all care about our litter footprint. To find out more, keep scrolling to: “Did You Know”. 

“It is through talking with their friends and family that we can spread the message far and wide. It is these conversations that will change behaviours that cumulatively will make all the difference to our Reef and marine environment.”


Our Story

The Drain Stencil Project was initiated in February 2015 by volunteers of the CAFNEC Marine Response Team. Volunteers were concerned about the level of plastic in our community, and recognised that there was a lack of education. After going through the hoops of Council approval, the project was officially launched on Friday, 5th of June 2015 at Yorkey’s Knob. 

The first drain stencilling event was a beautiful sunny day and was celebrated by many members from the Cairns region and Yorkeys Knob community. The launch was exciting and a great success. From the launch date until the end of 2015 six stencil sessions were held in other suburbs around Cairns, managing to stencil over 40 drains. The project was able to continue in to 2016, where a suburb-intensive program was initiated, allowing us to focus on one suburb at a time. With the help of schools and communities we were able to stencil over 100 drains.

We know that kids are the future and make the best teachers to their friends and parents. That’s why we’ve been excited to bring this project into classrooms and after-school groups. We’ve been impressed at how the Drain Stencil Project ignited new passions among students; everything from recycling schemes, litter monitoring groups, and waterway-related speeches!  

Five years in, we have stencilled hundreds of drains with thousands of people from Gordonvale to the Northern beaches of Cairns. We have shared our love for our waterways and demonstrated ways anyone can protect our waters through simple solutions like plastic-free lunches, monitoring local creeks, and riding a bicycle instead of a car. This project continues thanks to the support and passion we receive from volunteers, schools, neighbourhoods, businesses, and donors. Keep scrolling to find out the different ways you can get involved.  

Get Involved

Volunteer with us

Do you enjoy working with children? At CAFNEC we hope to provide you with a positive opportunity to get involved with the community, develop skills and be amongst like-minded people. The time you put into the projects and events is up to you, however, we like to maintain a reliable community to be able to continue to grow and build a stronger message. We run stenciling events throughout the year in schools, with community groups, and with neighbourhoods throughout the year.

Keen? Let us know you can help at: projects@nullcafnec.org.au

Invite us to your school or community group

CAFNEC has worked with a number of school and community groups, stencilling hundreds of drains within campuses and in the community. Depending on the location and number of participants, CAFNEC can host stencilling sessions starting at $200. If you would like CAFNEC to host a stencilling session with your group, or school, check out our Event Request page. 

Run your own Stencilling Event

Joined a previous stencilling event and now want to stencil at your school or business? We lend you our equipment to help make this happen under certain conditions. Check out our Equipment Rental page, or, if you’d rather than we organised the event, check out our Event Request page.

Become a Sponsor

Are you an individual or business interested in sponsoring a project that works with the community to spread the word that our precious reef must be cared for?

Please take a minute to consider the sponsorship proposal: Cairns Drain Stencil Project Sponsorship Proposal.

By supporting the project, sponsors will contribute to an all-round positive conservation initiative that allows the local community to get involved and take on-ground action to promote better outcomes for the local marine environment.

The project is driven by our amazing CAFNEC Marine Response Team volunteers and your support will go a long way, providing volunteers with the coordination and materials required to work with the community.

Please download your sponsor’s pack where for as little as a one-off gift of $300 you can sponsor the stenciling of a street through your business or community group.

Did you know…

In Cairns, there are more than 260 drains and waterways whose water flows to the ocean. The water that is transported through these drains and waterways is called stormwater. It comes after rain lands on impervious surfaces like roofs, roads, and footpaths, makes its way into drains, creeks and rivers, and eventually flows into bays and the ocean.


Image courtesy of Tangaroa Blue – www.tangaroablue.org

Types of pollutants

Litter –  Plastic, plastic bags, cans, food wrappers

Litter is composed of man-made items that ended up in the marine environment through littering or dumping. Stormwater drains are able to carry items of litter out to the ocean, and if these are made of plastic they remain in the environment, for tens, hundreds or even thousands of years. Plastics waste in the ocean kills 100,000 marine animals and up to a million sea birds every year through choking, clogging, and entrapment. When plastics degrade into micro-plastics they are still harmful, as they contain carcinogenic toxins which get consumed by corals and filter feeders like whales, clams, and many fish.

On every beach around Australia, you will find some form of marine debris, from rubbish swept down stormwater drains or left by visitors, to international debris that travelled thousands of kilometres onto our shores. The Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI) is a national network of over 40,000 volunteers and partners, coordinated by Tangaroa Blue Foundation, focused on reducing the amount of marine debris washing into our oceans.

Sedimentation – Leaf litter, soils, garden clippings

Sedimentation is composed of the small organic particles that are washed down stormwater drains. These can come from a range of sources such as leaf litter and grass, eroded soil structures, and the weathering of infrastructure such as concrete paths, buildings and roads. When it reaches the ocean, sediment causes turbidity, or muddiness in the water and this can pose a number of threats to complex marine systems. Light is an important factor for the growth and survival of coral reefs. Small sediment particles have the ability to block the light coral needs to survive, to smother the coral and to even cause mechanical abrasions.

Nutrient-rich pollutants – Fertilisers, animal faeces

Nutrients that stormwater drains introduce to the reef are typically in the form of fertilisers or animal faeces from pets and livestock. These are high in nitrogen and may also contain phosphorous, both of which cause a spike in population for algae. This is a problem because the algae use up all the oxygen and create “dead zones” in the ocean. They also block light and clog up the gills of fish.

Drain Systems in Cairns

Cairns Stormwater System

In the central area of Cairns alone, there are 20,000m of culverts, 58,000m of open drains, 168,500 m of pipes and 3,800m of waterways. The drainage network is a combination of pits, pipes, open channels and natural waterways which is continually developed, managed and maintained. These carry stormwater into creeks, rivers and other catchments. The stormwater eventually ends up in the ocean. As stormwater is not treated, everyone has a role to play in keeping pollutants out of the stormwater system to ensure the long-term health of our rivers, creeks and oceans. Find out more here.

Cairns Wastewater Treatment

Unlike water in our drains, the water we use in our toilets, taps, and showers gets treated before entering our natural environment. Cairns town water ends up at the Marlin Coast wastewater treatment plant, which operates a bio-nutrient reduction system. Here, it is transformed from sewage, by an activated sludge process, into ‘A’ grade recycled water and a small amount of solid waste. The water is supplied to a local school and golf course for irrigation and the remainder flows to Moon Creek and into the Coral Sea. Read more here.

Easy Ways You Can Prevent Stormwater Pollution

In Your Home

When you are at home you can prevent pollution in drain water systems and do your bit for the ocean by taking a few easy actions.

Some of these are:

  • Recycle plastics, glass and paper/cardboard waste appropriately. More Info
  • Put other rubbish in bins. Take oils and large, non-recyclable items to a transfer station. More Info
  • Compost vegetable waste if possible – your garden will thank you for it. More Info
  • Use cleaning products that are environmentally friendly. More Info
  • Avoid products such as exfoliants that contain plastic micro-beads.

Image with permission from Steve Greenberg

In Your Garden

There are a number of actions you can take when you are outside your home that can prevent pollution being washed down your stormwater drains.

Some of these are:

  • Picking up after your pet, and placing the animal faeces into a rubbish bin, instead of letting it wash down the drain. More Info
  • Washing your car or boat on the grass instead of in the driveway and limiting your use of cleaning products. More Info
  • Fixing your car in the garage instead of on the street to prevent oil leaks onto the road.
  • Sweeping and collecting leaves and dirt from pathways rather than hosing them down the drain.
  • Keeping streets and gutters litter-free. Picking up any discarded litter and placing in the appropriate bin.
  • If possible, avoid using fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. If you do need to use them, reduce the chance of run-off into the stormwater system by taking care not to use too much and do not apply them before rain is expected- you waste money and pollute the seawater.
  • Don’t pour excess paint down the drain. Let it dry and then put it in a rubbish bin. Wash paintbrushes over grass, not down the drain.
In Your Community

There are a number of ways you can positively contribute to ocean health within your community.  The most important thing you can do is share your awareness with your family and friends. Talk to them about water quality, waste, litter and pollution, and how we can all do our bit to improve the water quality of our Great Barrier Reef.

Other things you can do are:

  • Take your own reusable bags when you go shopping
  • Get involved in a beach clean up. Find out more here www.tangaroablue.org
  • Carry your own water bottle. Do you really need to buy drinking water in plastic bottles anyway? Maybe you can just refill yours from a tap, and save yourself some money too!
  • When you buy food or a drink, think about how it is packaged. Can you make a better choice to avoid or minimise the use of packaging and containers? Maybe when buying coffee you can bring your own mug?

Sign up!

Get all the latest news, events and information right to your inbox.

Join Our Mailing List