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Drowning in litter

By Asaesja Young

June 16, 2017

people standing in a sea of plastic in a waterway
Ocean pollution choking parts of Port Moresby. ©Sustainable Coastlines

It’s no secret that our oceans and waterways are drowning in waste, a by-product of the world’s economic growth.

To date, the best estimates, reported in Science in 2015, suggest that about 8 million metric tonnes of plastic go into the oceans each year – around 16 shopping bags for each metre of global coastline (excluding Antarctica).

More than 690 marine species are reported to be affected by this litter, with seabirds and turtles arguably two of the groups most vulnerable.

Tube-nosed seabirds like shearwaters, petrels and albatrosses are thought to be attracted to the smell of the plastic, which once in the water and with radiation from the sun, starts to smell like their food.

Turtles also mistake plastic for food and it’s believed that as many as a third of turtles have eaten plastic, mistaking it for jellyfish.

It’s not just wildlife that are affected. In developing countries where waste and storm water infrastructure aren’t advanced, rubbish – particularly plastic bags and other thin, film-like plastics – can choke gutters and drains, resulting in significant flooding events, damaging homes and disrupting local communities.

The oceans’ problem is the world’s problem

There is now consensus world-wide that the issue needs immediate attention. In February, CSIRO’s Denise Hardesty presented in Germany at the world’s first G20 meeting on marine pollution. Plastic pollution was also the official theme for World Oceans Day 2017 on June 8 and the first target set at the UN’s Ocean Conference in New York the same week was to:

“By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.”

Largest marine pollution project

Until now, researchers and policy makers have relied on marine debris estimates based on 2010 World Bank data.

A new project, Global flows of plastic from land to seaaims to address the problem by bringing together some of the world’s top 20 polluters, including China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam and the United States, and other countries including Australia, South Korea and Taiwan.

This project for the first time will gather data country by country to quantify exactly how much litter is entering the oceans.

Leading the research is marine ecologist Dr Hardesty.

“This is a problem that is absolutely solvable and we’re already seeing some countries make significant improvements,” says Dr Hardesty.

“By coordinating our approach we’ll be able to achieve some quick wins and know where to set our sights for longer-term goals.”

CSIRO’s marine debris team specialises in looking at how people, wind, the shape of the land and storm water moves rubbish from land out into the ocean.

“We know that almost all litter started off in someone’s hand, and from there it finds its way from land to the ocean, where it breaks up into smaller pieces,” says Dr Hardesty.

“By looking at how the litter makes its way into the ocean, we’ll be able to work with countries to implement interventions and solutions that are underpinned by science.

“We’ll make the data available to participating groups and countries, so they can report what’s happening at the local level and compare this to other countries around the world.”

Dr Hardesty and her team are keen to work with as many countries as possible.

“Working with in-country organisations already doing important work will be key to the project’s success,” she says.

The project is a collaboration between CSIRO, Oak Foundation and Schmidt Marine Technology.

Find out more about our marine debris research.

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