Ian Kirnan - Cleanup Australia

Ian Kiernan – Change Master

If there is one person who epitomises the maxim “change yourself, change others, change the world”, it is Ian Kiernan, AO – Chairman, Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World.

We must be the change we want to see in the world
Ordinary people need to lead and not sit there and think that governments are going to spoonfeed them and look after them and look after the country, because they won’t.
–Ian Kiernan[1]

In the 1960s through to the 1980s Ian was a successful builder specialising is renovating run-down houses in downtown Sydney. And sailing ocean-going yachts was his passion.

The sight of man-made rubbish littering the Sargasso Sea as Ian Kiernan sailed in the BOC solo around-the-world race in 1987 would have a profound effect on him. It would result in the 46-year-old finally leaving behind a somewhat chaotic life of success and self-absorption and instead devote his life to much higher goals.

The Sargasso Sea is a unique stretch of water located in the North Atlantic that is surrounded by ocean currents and has no shoreline. Sailors know this area as the Doldrums as there is very little wind most times. Centuries ago the Spaniards would have to throw their horses overboard in order to conserve water. Seaweed is native to this area even though it is far from the shore and is a breeding ground and haven for marine life including sea turtles, tuna and eels.

But today ocean currents bring a vast amount of garbage from the other parts of the ocean including plastics. Even biodegradable plastics are damaging to the eco-environment.

Kiernan had been sailing yachts for some 30 years and he had earlier been guilty of simply throwing waste overboard. It had been the way he had been taught by experienced sailors. However ten years earlier he had first come to realise that pollution was an issue in waterways and he should change his ways.

The Sargasso Sea experience was the point when he determined that more was needed to be done. He recalls:

I was shocked, because I knew I had contributed to that morass of rubbish in my earlier behaviour. And any time I’ve taken on a challenge and been successful with it, I’ve always felt strength and always felt like, “What will I do next?” And I said, “OK, when I get home to Sydney Harbour, my backyard, I’ve been worried for so long about it, I’m going to bloody well do something about it.”[2]

Kiernan’s family background

Ian Bruce Carrick Kiernan was born in Sydney on 4 October 1940, the second child of George and Leslie Kiernan. His sister Ann had been born two years earlier. But with the outbreak of World War 2, Ian wouldn’t see much of his father for another five years.

Both parents were exceptional in different ways. At that time of Ian’s birth George was a senior manager with G.J. Coles, a large and growing network of variety stores throughout Australia. He had married Leslie Bruce while stationed in England for Coles in the late 1930s. Leslie had been born in Glasgow in 1912 and when they met she had been studying art at the London Polytechnic. Leslie went on to become an acclaimed painter in Australia and died in Sydney in 2012, aged 100 years.

George was nine years older than Leslie, having being born in Melbourne in 1903. He also had Scottish heritage with his parents having immigrated from Scotland.

George was a young boy when his father died suddenly. He left school early and helped support the family in the early years of the Depression. His break come when he was hired by Coles as a trainee manager. It was to be the making of him, according to Ian:

George fitted the bill perfectly. He was well-groomed, and as well-dressed as his meagre savings would allow, he was quick to learn and he had a pleasant manner.(p.2)[3]

It wasn’t long before the name George Kiernan was reported in the society pages of the newspapers as a guest of company functions and in the arrival and departure lists of important overseas passengers. He particularly enjoyed his time in England:

He made friends easily, enjoyed the clubbish camaraderie in which business was conducted (usually over cigars and port) and spent many happy weekends down in the country fishing for trout or playing golf with business acquaintances.(p.2)[4]

George returned to Australia with Leslie in 1937 and the next year found them settled in Sydney. From his European experience he could see that war was inevitable and he joined the Militia Forces in January 1939. Once Australia had come on to a war footing, he transferred to the Regular Army in May 1940. During this period his leadership potential was recognised and he made a rapid rise in rank, starting as a Private and then a series of promotions to Lieutenant in the Australian Army Service Corps.

After officer training in Melbourne and promotion to Captain, George and the 2/3 Reserve Motor Transport Company finally embarked on HMT Orcades on 11 April 1941, arriving in Singapore on 24 April.

The Company spent most of the year in training waiting for the anticipated invasion by the Japanese forces. Finally, the action came to a head on 8 December 1941 when the Japanese landed in Southern Thailand and in Northern Malaya. George was in the thick of the hostilities:

On 8 December, two platoons under Capt G.A.C. Kiernan moved 3/16 Punjab Bn to the pass, however the deployment was too late to seize The Ledge, and the battalion was outflanked. The spare drivers dismounted and fought to help extricate the unit, which was then withdrawn in Company vehicles. This detachment was the first Australian Army unit in action, a month before the first AIF infantry unit saw action at Gemas over a month later. As well as continuing its transport tasks, it provided machine gun patrols and an anti-paratroop force for aerodrome protection.[5]

Colonel Stokes of the 5/14 Punjab battalion and Colonel Stewart of the Argylls were full of praise for the way Kiernan and his drivers had extricated their men from dangerous situations.

The 2/3rd had performed brilliantly in support of some of the Indian battalions in the north, especially the 5/14th Punjab. Several times the drivers under Major Kiernan extricated Stokes and his men from dangerous situations. Colonel Stewart of the Argylls was also to write a glowing tribute to these Australian drivers, as had Major Fearon of the 1st Independent Infantry Company. These Australian veterans were a credit to their country.[6]

Even so, the Japanese rapidly drove the British forces down the Malay Peninsular towards Singapore. By January 31, 1942 British troops had completely withdrawn from Malaya on to Singapore island. In just 55 days, the Malay Peninsula was lost. It would be only another two weeks before the British surrendered to the Japanese.

Just before this capitulation George, now promoted to Major, had sailed south with his Company out of Singapore on the SS Kinta to Batavia, the capital of Java (now Jakarta, Indonesia), arriving on 11 February 1942. Their wait was brief as the Japanese landed in force a few days later. After just 10 days of fighting, the 3000-strong ‘Black Force’ was forced to surrender on 8 March when the Dutch commander on the island formally capitulated. As a result, around 2,700 men of Black Force became Japanese Prisoners of War.

From that time on, little was known in Australia about the fate of the POWs. There was confirmation by Japanese radio in June 1942 and later that year news was received that he was in Changi prison in Singapore.

George had been away for more than fifteen months before Leslie received word from the Army that he was ‘missing, believed POW in Java’.

What wasn’t known back home was that George was part of “A” Force shipped off in October 1942 to Burma to work on the infamous Thai-Burma railway. The geography in Burma was somewhat less challenging for laying a railway line compared to the Thai section. However the remoteness made it difficult for supplies to get through and they were at the mercy of Allied bombing raids as well as sadistic Japanese officers and Korean guards. Around 13 percent of “A” Force died during this period, much lower than the deaths of Australians sent to the Thailand section of the railway construction.

With the railway operational by October 1943, George was reported to be in Java but was actually in Camp Tamarkan in Siam (Thailand) as a POW. Subsequent moves were to Camp Chunkai, to Kanburi Officers Camp early in 1945, and finally a planned move to Nakom Nyok, north of Bangkok in August.[7]

From the beginning of 1945, it seemed it was only a matter of time before Japan would be defeated and the prisoners free to return home. But of great concern to the Allies was knowledge that orders had been given for all prisoners to be shot. Working with the Siamese underground, American paratroopers were secretly in place by August 1945 to overthrow the Japanese and release the prisoners. This was planned for August 28. However the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the end of the war before the attacks could take place. On 15 August 1945 Japan surrendered to the Allies. More than one-third of the Australian soldiers who were prisoners of the Japanese had died in captivity. The dropping of the atomic bombs meant that many more were saved from the final solution of the planned mass-murder of prisoners.[8]

The following weeks were confusing as there was no immediate Allied support for the POWs. It was many weeks before the complex process of repatriation could start. Eventually George sailed from Singapore on 27 October on the “Circassia” arriving in Sydney on 6 November. After a period in hospital recovering from his ordeals George was discharged from the Army on 22 January 1946.

Not knowing his own father, it’s understandable Ian took a while to adapt to this new person in the home:

He spent a lot of time sitting in the garden and smoking. I was too young to understand what he’d been through, but I knew instinctively when to leave him alone with his thoughts, and as the weeks went by and his strength grew, he became more active and outgoing.

I wish I’d been a little older that summer, old enough to understand his strength of character as he built himself back into the man he’d been before fate dealt him a pretty lousy hand.

By the end of 1946, while I didn’t fully understand him, he had entered my pantheon of heroes.(p.9)[10]

George soon returned to work at Coles to pick where he’d left off five-and-a-half years earlier.

Growing Up

Ian started prep school at The Scots College in 1947. However he was forever having colds and sore throats and other minor ailments that it was eventually decided that he should board at The Armidale School (TAS), some 500 km north of Sydney where the climate would be more suitable for him.

Although not a top student academically he nevertheless enjoyed his years at TAS. During this period he had many different sporting interests but one sport grabbed him:

During my high school years I’d learnt to sail, and it became an enduring love despite the long months I spent away from the beach and the Harbour.

By the time I was fifteen I had to have a boat, and I worked at chores all through the summer to make the money to pay for it.(p.18)[11]

In the meantime, George had left Coles and set up his own importing business and wanted Ian to join him and eventually take over the business. George arranged for Ian to gain experience first in working a Coles but Ian hated it. He did spend several years in working with his father but Ian was really interested in getting into the building industry. In 1962 he joined the building supplies firm Concrete Industries Monier and learned about project management before eventually setting up his own business in restoring inner-city slums.

By 1968 Ian was starting to build his empire of house purchases for renovating and then renting. A year later he owned 30 houses with plans to own “at least 100”. Ian, though his company, IBK Constructions was becoming the biggest private landowner in Sydney.[12]

Work commitments plus now being married to wife, Judy, and with two children didn’t stop Ian from investing in his passion for sailing as well as touring on his Honda 4 motorbike. He was busy building his own 30-foot yacht in his backyard for over a year and then off sailing. His home-built boat didn’t sail very well and he soon replaced it with a well-built 36-foot yawl called Maris in late 1970. This is when he started on ocean sailing in earnest. It’s no surprise that pursuing his own interests in this way put some strain on the marriage.

When I bought the Maris I was a wealthy young bloke, living in a beautiful big house overlooking Balmoral beach, with a wife and two daughters and life was pretty good. I had a target of 500 houses. I only got to 398, unfortunately. But I had four major commercial blocks and a string of restaurants. And then interest rates went from 6% to 17% overnight, everybody left me, music stopped and I didn’t get a chair, so I lost the lot.[13]

He did what he could to salvage the business and then decided to hand the business over to his wife while he went sailing around the Pacific on Maris for the year, returning in September 1975. As Ian explains in his book, Coming Clean, “It was a turning point in a life which to that time had embraced capitalism and hedonism in about equal measure.” But his marriage was over.

Now his priority was to get back into business to repay his debts. “I’d been brought up to believe that going broke was unacceptable,” he said. While he quickly re-established a successful business, it actually took until 1984 before he was clear of the debts from the 1974 debacle.

The BOC Challenge

Ian first heard about the BOC Challenge, round the world, solo yacht race in 1981. It was scheduled to start from Newport, Rhode Island in August 1982. He was desperate to take part but couldn’t afford the eight-month race without sponsorship and this type of sponsorship was almost unheard of in Australia.

The only Australian contestant in the end was Neville Gosson who left Sydney early in 1982 for his voyage to the starting line in Newport. This is when Ian first met a 22-year-old blonde not long out of university taking on the role of project manager for the Sydney leg of The BOC Challenge.

Kim McKay had graduated in 1981 with a BA Communications degree majoring in journalism, public relations and sociology from the University of Technology, Sydney. For the BOC Challenge, Kim was responsible for putting together a committee of interested people to help welcome the solo sailors when they would be arriving from the Cape Town to Sydney leg late in 1982. There would be a break before they would set out on the Sydney to Rio de Janeiro leg, due to start on 1 January 1983. She invited Ian to act as safety officer, which he willingly accepted.

The next BOC Challenge race was to take place in 1986-7. Ian had married again but was still keen to be involved and again was looking out for the opportunity. After the success of Australia II in winning the Admiral’s Cup from the American’s in September 1983 there had been greater public interest in major yachting events and sponsors were more inclined to be part of the action.

The person who had the money to fund such a challenge was Rod Muir, a flamboyant character who had made a fortune from introducing the first FM radio station to Australia, Sydney’s top-rating station, 2MMM. Muir commissioned a purpose-built yacht, Spirit of Sydney, for the challenge. The main problem from Ian’s point of view was that it was designed by a committee. His relationship with Muir was somewhat tenuous as he says:

I managed to have quite a good relationship with Rod. I admired him greatly and actually liked him too, in his saner moments. He was erratic and impulsive and capable of being totally self-centred, but strangely one of the things that gave him the greatest pleasure was making other people’s dreams come true.(p.146)[14]

And Ian’s dream was to compete in The BOC Challenge. But it meant enduring abuse and scorn from Muir in his many tantrums. Kim McKay had also been hired by Muir as his PR person for the race and she was often the mediator between the two warring personalities.

The Spirit wasn’t the best designed yacht for this type of race. It was a heavy-weather boat that didn’t sail well in the light winds. The French boats were of a much better design as they had much more experience at this type of racing. By the end of first leg of the race from Rhode Island to Cape Town Muir was furious with Ian for his poor performance (not Spirit) and wanted to withdraw his boat from the race. But Ian defied him and continued on to Sydney without Muir’s support. The Spirit went well on this leg and Muir was happy again. One appreciates just how dangerous solo ocean racing is when one of the French competitors was lost overboard just out of Sydney.

In Rhode Island before the start of the race, Ian had met with one of the US competitors, Mark Schrader, who was being sponsored by the Center for Marine Conservation. Mark convinced Ian they should keep their waste on board to show people just how much waste one person accumulates on such a voyage.

It was during the last leg of the race from Rio to Rhode Island that he came across the garbage in the Sargasso Sea:

First a rubber thong, then a toothpaste tube, a comb, a plastic bag. As Spirit cut through the almost glass-like sea, propelled by the lightest of breezes, the rubbish popped up on both sides of the bow.

What I saw in the Sargasso Sea helped put into perspective a number of issues I’d been thinking about for a long time. Perhaps for the first time, as I climbed through those latitudes, it occurred to me that if I could keep a bag of garbage down below, surely a million recreational sailors around the world could do the same. Each one of us just had to come to the understanding that one person could make a difference.(p.182)[15]

Ian was happy that he’d finished the race:

I was fifth home in the leg, sixth finisher overall. I hadn’t won, but all finishers in the BOC Challenge are winners. I’d had a shocking leg, a middling leg and two bloody good ones. The sword of possible failure was no longer hanging over my head.(p.184)[16]

Cleaning Up

Back in Sydney he now wondering what he could do to tackle the waste problem. It wasn’t only recreational sailors who were the problem. The US Navy was the world’s biggest polluter at the time and it was normal for cruise liners to dispose of waste on the high seas. Much of the rubbish came from land dwellers from wind-blown waste or storm water channels.

He met up with Kim McKay and explained what was on his mind. He had been out sailing on the previous weekend and had seen the rubbish accumulating in Sydney Harbour. Some years earlier he had witnessed a clean-up that took place in to the Ala Wai Canal in Hawaii. “Could we organise something like that here?”, he asked.

Now Kim was not a person to shy away from a challenge – bearing in mind nothing like this had been attempted before – said, “Yes, we can do that. Let’s make that happen.”

The first move was to write to the Minister for Ports in New South Wales. There was no interest in such an idea.

That spurred Kim and Ian to search their contact lists. “Convincing people to participate was what the challenge was all about, so I used the ‘old mates act’ to secure a committee of communicators, including a couple of the best in the country,” explained Ian.(p.198)[17]

Between the two of them they brought together a small team of influential Sydney-siders, including well-known advertising executives, John Singleton, and Alan Morris, the founder of advertising agency, MoJo. Initially the thought was to start with a clean-up of Mosman Bay but they quickly settled on planning a day for people to join in a clean up of Sydney Harbour.

The intense advertising campaign and the jingles worked beyond their wildest dreams. On Sunday 8 January 1989 Clean Up Sydney Harbour Day brought out 40,000 volunteers to collect 5,000 tonnes of rubbish, including more than 3,000 syringes.

The success of the campaign brought forth inquiries from other Australian cities starting with ‘The Day of the Derwent’ in Hobart. Ian and Kim were happy to pass on their experience and realised they had a winning formula to apply the concept to other cities in Australia. That’s when they jointly founded the Clean Up Australia organisation.

With help from Westpac Bank and other sponsors, the first Clean Up Australia Day in January 1990 was an enormous success involving more than 300,000 people.

In each year since the involvement has grown. According to the Clean Up Australia website, over the past 25 years “Australians have devoted more than 27.2 million hours towards the environment through Clean Up Australia Day and collected over 288,650 tonnes of rubbish.”[18]

The most ambitious step was for Ian and Kim to take their concept to the world. In 1993, under the auspice of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Clean Up the World was launched. In its inaugural year, Clean Up the World involved approximately 30 million people in 80 countries.

From the experience Kim McKay learned the power of citizen engagement. “Being involved in Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World taught me that if you have hands-on engagement and participation by groups you can change things,” she said in a recent interview.[19]

Kim explained the success of the initial clean up this way:

We’d put together a very successful marketing campaign, not marketing a product but marketing an issue. Ian was the perfect person to front this campaign because he had no axe to grind, he was believable and he was a champion. People listened. But of course the timing was perfect. There was already a huge amount of concern about the sewage pollution on Sydney’s 200 beaches.(p.204)[20]

Kim McKay has gone on to have an extraordinary career as an environmentalist, author, entrepreneur and international marketing and communications consultant. Since April 2014 she has been the CEO and Executive Director of the Australian Museum, the first woman to hold the position. In 2008 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished service to the environment and the community.

Today Ian Kiernan, as Chairman of Clean Up Australia and Clean Up The World, continues to inspire groups of children and adults with his story of establishing Clean Up and encourages all to take action and not rely on governments when it comes to the environment. He has received many awards for his contributions, including Australian of the Year in 1994. the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 1991 and he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1995.


Ian Kiernan was diagnosed with cancer in July 2017. He passed away on October 16, 2018. A month later, on November 16, the Clean Up Australia founder was honoured by hundreds at a state memorial service at the Sydney Opera House.


1 Kissane, K. (1996, February 10). Mister Sheen. The Age, Extra sec., p.124

2 Kiernan, I. (2004, October 21). An interview with Ian Kiernan (G. Negus, Interviewer) [Transcript]. ABC Online Services. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/gnt/profiles/Transcripts/s1225956.htm

3 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

4 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

5 Lindsay, N. (1992). Equal to the Task, Volume 1, The Royal Australian Army Service Corps. Brisbane, Australia: Historia Productions. Retrieved from http://books.historia.com.au/equal-to-the-task_v1-raasc/e1-fore/index.html

6 Elphick, P. (1995). Singapore: The Pregnable Fortress. London: Coronet.

7 Jacobs, J.W. (1947). The Burma Railway: One Man’s Story. [PDF]. Retrieved from http://www.pows-of-japan.net/booksetc/Jacobs-Maj.pdf

8 Jacobs, J.W. (1947). The Burma Railway: One Man’s Story.

9 National Archives of Australia. Kiernan George Arthur Carrick: Service Record. Retrieved from http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=4839812

10 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

11 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

12 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

13 Kiernan, I. (2008, August 18). An interview with Ian Kiernan (P. Thompson, Interviewer) [Transcript]. ABC Online Services. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/tv/talkingheads/txt/s2330905.htm

14 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

15 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

16 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

17 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

18 Clean Up Australia. (2016). Who we are. Retrieved August 22, 2016 from http://www.cleanupaustraliaday.org.au/about/about-the-organisation.

19 Green, J. (Presenter). (2016, August 21). The year that made me: Kim McKay. Sunday Extra [Radio Broadcast]. Sydney, Australia: ABC Radio National. Retrieved August 22 from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/science-by-stealth/7723778.

20 Kiernan, I. & Jarratt, P. (1995). Coming Clean. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan.

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