In Australia we are lucky to be surrounded by some of the most pristine marine ecosystems on earth, 3.3 million hectares of which are protected in marine parks. However, these parks don't protect our oceans from some of the biggest threats to their health, including climate change and plastic pollution.
Climate change threatens ocean life through increased coral bleaching, ocean acidification and the subsequent loss of biodiversity due to increasing water temperatures. Go to climate action for more information on what you can do about that.
A plastic catastrophe is happening now
Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980. Globally, 95% of all plastic packaging is used once and then discarded.
Over 5 trillion pieces of plastic litter the ocean including 8 billion+ cigarette butts, the most prevalent form of ocean plastic pollution.
On current trends, the weight of plastic in the ocean will be more than the weight of fish by 2050.
A scientific study in Colorado found plastic in 90% of rain samples collected. Micro-plastic has similarly been found in ice cores drilled in the Arctic in the remotest waters on the planet.
A WWF report No plastic in nature found that people are ingesting up to a credit card (5g) a week of plastic due to its presence in water and the food chain. Bottled water won't save you, it's in there too.
Compared to the plastic rubbish we can easily see, micro plastic presents a more insidious threat as it's currently impossible to get rid of it once it's in the environment. A major source of micro plastic comes from washing our clothes that often contain synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic.
Plastic filiments and beads found by scientists in Arctic ice.
What the world is doing
In 2018 Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the UK pledged to combat ocean pollution worldwide through their Oceans Plastic charter, however, this agreement is not legally binding and focuses on managing and recycling plastic rather than getting rid of it.
As of 2019, seventy countries have banned light-weight single-use plastic bags. Many countries including Canada and France are following this up with bans on single-use plastics like plates, cups and straws. Cities across India have banned single-use plastics with the country committed to ban all single-use plastics by 2022.
Rwanda is the first country to ban the manufacture, import, use and sale of single-use plastics including plastic soft drink and water bottles and most food packaging. Plastic will be confiscated from you if you try and enter the country. People found making, selling or importing plastic bags face four years in prison or up to $40,000 in fines.
The inaugural Ocean Plastics Congress will be held in Melbourne in December 2019, bringing together scientists, campaigners and decision makers from around the world to plan how to turn the tide on plastic pollution.
Millions of people have signed up to plastic-free pledges like
Plastic Free July and refuse to use initiatives like Plastic attack to transition away from plastic and refuse to buy stuff wrapped in unnecessary packaging.
Ocean Cleanup is a science and technology non-profit project developing methods to remove plastic from the five enormous patches where plastic has accumulated, with the aim of getting as much out as possible before it turns into micro-plastic.
What Australia is doing
All states except NSW have banned light-weight single-use plastic bags in Australia, with Victoria's ban coming into practice in November 2019. However, supermarkets continue to provide supposedly multi-use plastic bags that are just a bit heavier plastic, as well as the omnipresent re-usable green bags that are also made of plastic. With supermarkets pedalling free plastic toys to kids in their marketing campaigns, there's a long way to go.
Container deposit schemes (where you can collect cash for returning empty drink containers) can decrease plastic bottle and can pollution by up to 80%. All states except Victoria and Tasmania have now introduced them.
South Australia will become the first state to ban some single-use plastics with legislation being drafted for 2020.
Australia has overseen the voluntary industry phase out of micro-beads (plastic micro-beads added to skin-care, soap, toothpaste and cleaning products), however, some products still contain micro-beads and no legislation has been created to ban them.
Australia is in the midst of a recycling crisis with no leadership in sight. It's been two years since China stopped taking our waste, Indonesia and Malaysia have sent back contaminated plastic waste, and Victorian recycling collection company SKM has collapsed leaving thousands of tonnes of rubbish in warehouses around Melbourne.
What Australia could do
For a start NSW needs to ban plastic bags and Victoria and Tasmania join the container deposit scheme. But that's just so these states can catch up.
With micro-plastic contaminating the entire globe, Australia needs to approach this problem with the urgency it requires by immediately banning single-use plastics (including plastic packaging and drink bottles) creating legislation that makes corporations responsible for the whole life-cycle of their products, and transition to a circular economy with zero waste.
Alternatives are readily available to plastic packaging, the most obvious being no packaging. Where packing is required, recycled paper packaging and the ever-growing bio-plastics industry are viable alternatives. Bio-plastics are made from natural fibres such as sugar cane pulp and corn and are also a climate change solution.
The Boomerang Alliance's extensive Marine Plastic Pollution Threat Abatement Plan 2016 outlines how Australia could reduce ocean plastic pollution by 70% by 2020. We could have almost done it already!
Australia needs to urgently investigate the impacts of micro fibres released from clothing and create legislation to deal with this problem. This could include requiring new washing machines to be fitted with micro fibre filters and creating a program to retro-fit current washing machines, working with the clothing industry to phase out the use of synthetic fibres in clothing manufactured in Australia and phasing out the import of synthetic clothing.
Australia would then be positioned as a leader in dealing with plastic pollution and could take part in the global effort that is needed to rid our environment of plastic.
Australia and the world needs to ban synthetic cigarette filters now. Tobacco companies were exploring biodegradable filters back in the 1970s. We all know how quick they are to address public health concerns when there's no legislation!
What you can do
- Take action with Australian Marine Conservation by calling the Australian Environment Minister and emailing a bunch more Ministers to call for a ban on single-use plastics.
- Bookmark the Eco-shout national calendar for ocean actions, events and forums around the country.
- Get in touch with Plastic Free Places to transition your council, town or community to plastic freedom. Noosa, Byron Bay and Perth are already signed up.
- Join Plastic Free July for heaps of tips on going plastic free and involving your workplace or community.
- If you buy veggies from the supermarket that are wrapped in plastic, take it off and leave it there for them to deal with! Join in global World Plastic Attack Day on 15 September or organise your own plastic attack on any day.
- Buy clothes made of 100% natural fibres like cotton, bamboo, hemp and wool rather than mixes of natural and synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and acrylic. In the meantime you can wash your plastic clothes in a micro fibre laundry bag that catches the fibres and prevents them from entering our waterways or get a micro firbe filter for your washing machine. Join the call for the clothing industry to take responsibility and stop making clothes that produce micro fibres
Break up with plastic!