The plastic soup
“There’s a place in heaven for people like you.”
Now, whether you’re a religious person or not, when someone sees you picking up litter on the beach and says this to you, their appreciation is palpable. I smile, thank the gentleman and tell him it’s the least I can do.
Littered beaches is something I am, unfortunately, all too familiar with – cigarette butts standing in the sand like totems, bottles and fast food packaging clustered as modern day middens of temporary human habitation – all too soon they become marine debris, if not disposed of correctly.
Marine litter (debris), as defined by the United Nations Environment Program (2009), is any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment. The nature and extent of this litter issue is persistent and growing exponentially, and in 2009 the Australian Government developed the ‘Threat Abatement Plan for the Impacts of Marine Debris on Vertebrate Marine Life’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act to assist in tackling it. A review of this document began in 2015.
In 2015 around one-quarter of respondents to the Victorian Litter Action Alliance (VLAA) Stakeholder Survey noted that marine/coastal litter and micro-plastics/nurdles were key emerging issues for their organisations. For the uninitiated, nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets – lost as industrial waste via stormwater systems to oceans and for which a loss prevention program, Operation Clean Sweep, has recently been launched.
The focus on marine debris, and in particular plastic litter, is by no means a ground-breaking finding. Plastics are being developed and produced at a rate never seen before, and are being used (and abused) in products as never before – microbeads being the case in point and, while technically not litter, their contribution to the oceanic plastic soup is one for concern.
“A recent CSIRO study of Australian beaches found that three-quarters of the litter found on them was plastic.
Luckily this particular pollutant has been recognised, and countries and industry are reacting. In just the last few months, we have seen a number of countries ban microbeads, including the US and Canada and, prior to that, Holland.
According to not-for-profit group, Beat the Microbead, 329 brands from 59 different manufacturers have promised to remove plastic microbeads from their products. Locally, retailers Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have also all committed to stop selling products containing microbeads by 2017.
Items that have not yet afforded such action include single-use plastic items, such as straws, takeaway coffee cups and lids, and plastic bags, to name a few. This is the type of waste that I, and many others, pick up off from local beaches every day.
The impact of plastics on marine species has been well-documented – ingestion leading to starvation, entanglement causing drowning and so forth. Research shows that plastics can attract various harmful chemical compounds, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which accumulate on the surface of the material. Research is underway investigating their bioaccumulation and biomagnification through food webs.
Oceans support all life on earth. They provide 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe and play an integral role in regulating our climate. I, for one, am not keen to test what reaction we get from continued pollution of our oceans.
What I am keen to test, however, is a collaborative, evidence-based approach. An approach that harnesses the combined efforts of state and local governments, industry, education and research institutions and community to remove and prevent litter in our environment.
A recent CSIRO study of Australian beaches found that three-quarters of the litter found on them was plastic. The research demonstrates that the majority of litter on Australian beaches comes from human activity – it is not simply being swept in from other countries.
VLAA stakeholders were lucky enough to hear about this research at an event we held in November last year, ‘Let’s Talk About Marine Debris’. The event brought together representatives from the aforementioned groups to discuss the issue of marine debris and allow people to share their success stories, voice their concerns and potential solutions, and, most importantly, connect with other like-minded people.
And connections are the foundation to start something powerful.
Donna Shiel is VLAA Litter Champion – Victorian Litter Action Alliance/Sustainability Victoria