There are fears whales, dolphins and other marine life could be hurt as debris from a shipping container continues to wash up on beaches north of Newcastle.

Locals have collected dozens of bags of plastic material, jars, packaged food, clocks, nappies and sanitary items from 83 containers that fell off a cargo ship last Thursday night. About 30 more were moved or damaged.

Port Stephens EcoNetwork’s Nigel Dique and about eight volunteers have already filled at least 20 large bags of debris from Zenith and Box beaches.

“There were broken clocks, bits of structural plastic material, lots of jars and food items packaged in plastic,” Mr Dique told AAP on Monday.

“I don’t know what else was in these containers, if there was anything toxic, but certainly turtles and whales and large marine creatures think they are food and swallow the stuff.”

A further 30 volunteers – including Julie Sims from Hawks Nest – found car parts, drinks, sanitary items and other plastics strewn across Jimmys Beach.

“It goes on and on and on – it is just plastic, plastic, plastic,” Ms Sims told AAP.

The NSW Greens warned plastic poses a particular threat to marine life, including sea birds, whales, dolphins and turtles.

It has called on the state government to fast-track the clean-up to prevent further damage.

“The NSW coastline is a very busy maritime route, we should have excellent emergency response protocols but it looks like they have either failed or are grossly inadequate,” Greens marine spokesman Justin Field said in a statement.

NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Roads and Maritime Services and the state’s Environment Protection Agency were working with local councils to ensure all material was cleaned up.

In a statement, NSW Maritime said crews have been activated to recover and dispose of the waste washing up in the Port Stephens area. It also warned boaters in the area to be extra careful.

“Boaters are urged to take extra precautions due to potential sunken containers, which could create navigation hazards,” the statement said.

The government says it will try recoup the cost of the clean-up from the ship’s owner.

The ship’s insurer has employed local company Varley to put skip bins out for residents to dispose collected rubbish and use a helicopter to find the debris floating at sea, local MP Kate Washington told AAP.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating the incident.