Overview of marine plastic pollution
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 'marine
litter' refers to any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material
disposed of, or abandoned in, the marine and coastal environment. It can
consist of items that have been deliberately discarded into rivers and oceans,
or on beaches; brought indirectly into the marine environment through sewage,
stormwater, winds and rivers; or accidentally lost, including items lost at sea
such as fishing gear and cargo.
The concerns with plastic in marine debris is its vast distribution in
the water column, on the seabed and along coastal shorelines, as well as its
persistence, and its characteristic of breaking down to smaller and smaller
particles. These characteristics set plastics apart from other debris in the
oceans with many submitters noting that plastics remain in the environment for
decades if not longer.
Professor Tony Underwood, added that:
I think the focus on plastic might be justified because it is
persistent in ways that metal, wood and other materials are not. Plastic just
gets smaller and smaller, but it does not go away. That is different from metal
which eventually, when you throw it in the sea, will be gone. I think there is
a good reason why the focus on plastic keeps coming up compared with other
This chapter canvasses the magnitude of marine plastic pollution, types
of marine plastic pollution, sources of plastic pollution in the Australian
marine environment, and the extent of marine plastic pollution in Australian
The committee notes the extensive body of research on marine plastic
pollution, and the differing hypotheses, research methods, and findings
available. This report utilises research presented to the committee in evidence,
and acknowledges any associated limitations. The committee also acknowledges
that research continues to be conducted into the threat of marine plastic
pollution, and that understanding of the issue continues to evolve.
In addition, the committee has drawn on the recently released report by
the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation—The New Plastics
Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics—which explores issues
related to the production and use of plastics particularly plastic packaging.
The report noted that, while undertaking work to explore the opportunities and
challenges for the circular economy
across global supply chains, plastic packaging became an area of focus 'due to
its omnipresence in daily life all over the globe'. Plastic leaking (escaping)
from after-use systems was identified as a key theme. It was stated that the
'evidence of the looming degradation of marine ecosystems by plastics waste,
particularly plastic packaging, has made plastics leakage a priority topic'.
Plastics have existed for just over a century, however, mass production
commenced in earnest in the 1950s.
Plastics are made from organic polymers including petrochemicals, cellulose,
coal, natural gas and salt. The World Economic Forum noted that over 90 per
cent of plastics produced are derived from virgin fossil feedstocks which
represent about 6 per cent of global oil consumption.
Polymers are mixed with a complex blend of additives such as
stabilisers, plasticisers and pigments. Plastics may also contain unintended
substances in the form of impurities and contaminants.
Examples of plastics include polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE),
high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene (PP),
polystyrene (PS) and low-density polyethylene (HDPE).
Generally, plastics are extremely durable. However, the development of 'bio-degradable'
and 'degradable' plastics has seen the production of plastic items which degrade
more quickly than traditional plastics. Though these items are no longer
present in the environment at the macro-level, they continue to exist as
microplastics. Degradable and biodegradable plastic is commonly used to produce
shopping and garbage bags. Issues associated with the use and classification of
biodegradable and degradable plastics are discussed further in Chapter 7.
With most plastic products being lightweight, inexpensive, durable and
disposable, they have become an indispensable part of life with the World
Economic Forum stating that:
Plastics have become the ubiquitous workhorse material of the
modern economy—combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost. Their
use has increased twentyfold in the past half-century and is expected to double
again in the next 20 years. Today nearly everyone, everywhere, every day comes
into contact with plastics—especially plastic packaging...
The World Economic Forum went on to note that plastics are increasingly
being used across economies in sectors ranging from packaging to construction,
transportation, healthcare and electronics. This increasing use is reflected in
the rate of increase in global plastic production: in 1964, 15 million tonnes
of plastics were produced, in 2014 that had increased to 311 million tonnes.
According to the World Economic Forum, plastics production is expected to
double again in 20 years, and to almost quadruple by 2050.
Figure 2.1 provides the growth of production between 1950 and 2014.
Figure 2.1: Growth
in global plastics production 1950–2014
Source: World Economic Forum, The New Plastics
Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, January 2016, p. 11.
Plastic is produced in most global economies with 85 per cent of
production concentrated in three economies: the United States, Europe and Asia.
In 2014, for example, 45 per cent of world plastic production took place in Asia
(with China accounting for 26 per cent) followed by Europe with a 20 per
cent share, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with a 19 per
As noted above, plastics are used in many sectors. However, its use is
concentrated in packaging, that is, material designed for immediate disposal. Plastic
packaging represents 26 per cent of the total volume of plastic production
globally. In 2013, the plastics industry sold 78 million tonnes of plastic
packaging with a total value of US$260 billion. Plastic packaging volumes are
expected to double within 15 years, and more than quadruple by 2050 to an
estimated 318 million tonnes which the World Economic Forum noted is more
than the entire plastics industry output today.
Plastic packaging ranges from water and soft drink bottles to shrink-wrap,
rubbish bags and drink cups. Different plastic polymers are used across
packaging products for example, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and
PE-LD (polyethylene, low density) food wrap.
Plastic production in Australia
The Australian plastic production industry produces over 1.2 million
tonnes per year, representing approximately 10 per cent of Australian
manufacturing activity. The industry also employs 85,000 people.
In Australia 1.5 million tonnes of plastic were consumed in the 2012–13
financial year which equates to approximately 65 kilograms of plastic for
every man, women and child in Australia.
Only 20 per cent is subsequently recycled. In addition, 37 per cent of
this plastic was single-use disposable packaging.
The magnitude of marine plastic pollution
Plastics which enter the oceans can either float on the ocean surface,
or sink to the seafloor if they are made of polymers denser than seawaters.
Over time, buoyant plastics can drift ashore or they may drift out into the
open oceans. Plastics in the open ocean tend to accumulate in convergence
zones. These zones include five large-scale gyres of the South and North
Pacific, South and North Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
The sizes of these gyres are difficult to determine as they are constantly
expanding and moving.
Reports of marine plastic pollution were first noted in scientific
literature in the early 1970s.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) commented that 'in northern
Australia, marine plastic pollution was first identified as an issue of concern
in the 1990s'.
Since that time, various organisations have reported on the magnitude of
marine plastic pollution, but it remains unclear how much plastic is currently
in the ocean, and how much is entering each year. For example, in 2005, the
UNEP stated that it was estimated that 6.4 million tonnes of marine litter were
disposed of in the oceans and seas each year. The UNEP further estimated that over
13,000 pieces of plastic litter were floating on every square kilometre of
A study published in 2014, commented that the ocean surface water alone
contained five trillion plastic pieces.
Another study published in 2015 estimated that between 4.8 and
12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 from land
sources. Most of this plastic was comprised of single-use plastics, designed
for immediate disposal.
In its January 2016 report, the World Economic Forum stated that 'the
best research currently available estimates that there are over 150 million
tonnes of plastic waste in the oceans today'. In addition, it was stated that
the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is forecast to grow to 250 million
tonnes in 2025.
The World Economic Forum described this amount of plastic entering the marine
environment in graphic terms:
Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into
the ocean—which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into
the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to
two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.
Forecast growth in the amount of plastic finding its way into the marine
environment is based on increased population and economic growth occurring in
developing countries as well as continued increases in consumer consumption in
Dr Britta Denise Hardesty, Senior Research Scientist from the CSIRO,
similarly commented that 'the amount of plastic going into the ocean is
proportionate to the amount of plastic produced', with the global increase in
plastic production corresponding to the increase in the amount of plastic that
is entering the ocean.
The committee notes that in evidence, a note of caution was sounded
regarding the predictions of the amount of marine plastic in the marine
environment contained in the World Economic Forum paper. Professor Stephen
Smith from the National Marine Science Centre, commented that care was required
as the predictions were 'over a long temporal scale, but I think it highlights
the importance of the problem'. Professor Smith went on to state that if the
rate of waste entering the ocean continues, 'then I would support dire
Professor Underwood also noted that there were variances in estimates of
the amount of plastics entering the ocean due to lack of knowledge and the lack
of clarity about how much plastic there is in the world at any given time,
'because the estimates are not particularly good'.
The magnitude of marine plastic
pollution in Australian waters
The committee received evidence of the limited knowledge of the
magnitude of marine plastic pollution in Australian waters. The then Department
of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in its 2009 background paper
for the Threat Abatement Plan for the impacts of marine debris on vertebrate
marine life commented:
Information and data on the sources, magnitude and impacts of
marine debris around Australia has been derived primarily from land-based
coastal surveys. This information probably under-represents the actual quantity
of marine debris in Australia's marine and coastal environments, as debris may
sink, may become buried underground or become entangled underwater on rocky
outcrops and reefs, and never float ashore. There is little information
available on the magnitude of the debris that is floating in the sea or present
on the seabed.
The background paper went on to state that data available at that time suggested
that high concentrations of debris accumulate on parts of the coastline all
around Australia. Specific areas where debris had been reported at
comparatively high densities included coasts adjacent to urban centres and
remote areas of north-western Cape York, Groote Eylandt, northeast Arnhem Land,
the far north Great Barrier Reef, parts of South Australia including Anxious
Bay, parts of Western Australia, southwest Tasmania, and Australia's sub-Antarctic
Islands. Quantities of debris in these areas ranged from more than 400 kg of
debris per kilometre along remote parts of the northern Australian coast to 15
kg of debris per kilometre or less on heavily polluted parts of more remote
southern Australian coastlines including Australia's sub-Antarctic Islands.
In 2013, a study on marine plastic pollution in waters around Australia
similarly noted that:
...our current knowledge on plastic contamination in the
Australian marine environment is restricted to (1) beach litter cleanups that
record mainly the occurrence of relatively large objects...(2) land-based surveys
of marine megafauna impacted by marine debris...and (3) inferences based on
plastic pollution reports from New Zealand.
The 2013 study went on to characterise and estimate the concentration of
marine plastics in waters around Australia using surface net tows. It was
concluded that a high prevalence of small plastic fragments (less than 5 mm) in
Australian waters is consistent with other regions of the world's oceans.
Plastic pollution levels were moderate when compared to concentrations in other
marine areas. The study found high amounts of plastic close to cities on the
east coast, as well as in remote locations including west Tasmania and the
North West Shelf.
AIMS pointed to a number of research projects which reported on the
density of marine debris along the northern Australian coast. For example, a
2003 survey of marine debris at Cape Arnhem found that plastic items made up
around 74 per cent of all items recorded during a beach marine debris
Both Clean Up Australia and the Tangaroa Blue Foundation maintain data
sets of the debris collected from their clean-up activities. Clean Up Australia
Detailed studies of the materials removed on Clean Up
Australia Day in 2014 found while plastics were significant in every type of
site, the proportion of plastic materials recovered at beach and waterways was
some 20% more than the amount found at other sites. Dive sites reported 50% of
rubbish removed was plastic.
The Tangaroa Blue Foundation coordinates the Australian Marine Debris
Initiative (AMDI). The AMDI objectives include the removal of marine debris
from the environment; the collection of scientifically robust and long-term
data on what is removed and from where; and tracking the debris back to the
source wherever possible. Ms Heidi Taylor, Managing Director of the Tangaroa
Blue Foundation, stated that to date, more than 5.4 million marine debris
items have been entered into the AMDI database. This debris has been removed
from 1,729 sites and the weight of the debris has been totalled at over 500
tonnes. There are 140 categories in the AMDI with the datasets for Western
Australia holding information from 2005.
Other submitters provided evidence of individual clean-ups to highlight
the extent of marine plastic pollution. The Waste Management Association
Australia, Tasmanian Branch, for example, stated that 'the annual South-West
Marine Debris Clean-Up collected 48,000 separate items of litter mostly plastic
from five beaches in Tasmania's "pristine wilderness areas" in 2014'.
Dr Frederieke Kroon, Principal Research Scientist from AIMS also
commented on the information sourced from the AMDI and noted that overall, at
least 80 per cent of the marine debris collected in beach clean-ups in the
Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait regions is comprised of plastic.
In addition, Dr Kroon pointed to AIMS's own research projects. Dr Kroon commented
that in a field campaign in November 2015, in remote marine environments in
North-West Australia, including the Kimberley region and offshore in the Browse
and Bonaparte basins, small plastic particles and fibres were detected. Further
work is ongoing to better understand the abundance and distribution and,
eventually, the sources and fates of these plastic particles in remote regions.
However, Dr Kroon also noted that while research has been undertaken, it
is still unclear as to the magnitude of marine plastic pollution in Australian
waters, particularly those of northern Australia. Dr Kroon stated:
Because the tropical marine environment across Northern
Australia is such a large area, we are uncertain about the abundance and
distribution of marine plastics. Various studies have been done. There was the
CSIRO survey right around Australia and there has been work done on ghost nets
in Arnhem Land, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. There has been our own work in the
[Great Barrier Reef] and in the Arafura and Timor Seas, in the Kimberley. But
we are not getting a general overview of the problem for the whole of Northern
Australia and what the long-term effects on the marine ecosystems may be.
The Tangaroa Blue Foundation also argued that a large amount of plastic
debris is hidden, for example, debris is covered by sand in coastal dunes and
can be released at a later date through tidal action and storm events. Debris
is also trapped in vegetation in estuaries and waterways which can then impact
on critical habitats. The Tangaroa Blue Foundation also noted that 'data on the
abundance of debris is based on what can be observed and collected and there is
no current estimate on the abundance of hidden debris in the coastal or
Professor Smith told the committee that erosion of coastal environments is
'liberating old plastic from the dunes' and in areas such as Coffs Harbour,
items such as bottle tops from 1979 are being found.
A committee member similarly noted personal observation of '10 feet of
stratified plastic on the west coast' of Tasmania.
A further area where there is a significant gap in knowledge is the
plastic pollution abundance in sediments in Australian waters. Associate
Professor Mark Osborn commented that this 'compromises our ability to predict
the impact of these pollutants upon benthic systems'.
Sources of marine plastic pollution
Plastics entering the marine environment are generally categorised as
either ocean- or land-based. While land-based marine plastic pollution is
recognised as the more prevalent, with it generally being considered that 80
per cent of marine plastic pollution comes from land sources, ocean-based
sources still account for a significant proportion of marine plastic. The
following discussion provides an overview of these two sources of marine
plastic pollution. The country of origin of marine plastic is also considered.
Ocean-based marine plastic
Ocean-based marine plastic pollution is material that is either
intentionally or unintentionally dumped or lost overboard from vessels. Vessels
include not only merchant ships but also offshore oil and gas platforms.
Traditionally, ship-sourced garbage was disposed of at sea until the introduction
of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships
(MARPOL). As at 1 January 2013, MARPOL Annex V prohibits the discharge of all
types of garbage into the sea, with very limited exceptions (not related to
plastics). In 2014, 144 parties, representing approximately 98 per cent of the
world's merchant shipping tonnage, ratified MARPOL Annex V.
While MARPOL Annex V now prohibits the disposal of waste generated on
vessels, some ship operators illegally dump garbage while at sea. It is
estimated that 20 per cent of marine debris originates from the shipping
Ocean-based debris includes sewage, food scraps, oil and grease, animal
carcasses, and cargo residues. Ocean-based plastic waste includes packaging,
bottles, plastic parts of e-waste, synthetic ropes, fishing nets ('ghost
nets'), floats, monofilament lines, and strapping or wrapping associated with
ships' stores and cargo.
Abandoned or lost fishing gear
Of particular concern in Australian waters is abandoned, lost or
otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG). This includes plastic nets, lines,
and crab and lobster pots from both commercial and non-commercial fishing
operations. ALDFG is known to pose a threat to a range of marine fauna with
nets, lines, bait bags, and traps entangling marine fauna and, in some cases,
being ingested by marine fauna. ALDFG can also damage underwater habitats such
as coral reefs and benthic zones.
'Ghost fishing' occurs when ALDFG is no longer under the control of a
fisher or fishing operation and continues to trap and kill fish, marine
mammals, crustacea, turtles and birds. ALDFG can continue to ghost fish for
many years once it has been lost.
Each year around 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost or thrown
overboard around the world. In Australia's Gulf of Carpentaria, so-called
'ghost nets' are found in densities reaching up to three tonnes per kilometre,
which are some of the highest rates in the world. It is estimated that the
majority of nets come from fisheries in neighbouring countries, though
approximately 4 per cent of ghost nets originate in Australia.
The Northern Territory Seafood Council stated that lost or discarded
fishing gear from fishing activities by foreign fishing operations is of
increasing concern to industry. In particular, enormous nets of predominantly
Taiwanese manufacture and longline gear used by numerous fisheries to the north
of Australia, or by illegal fishers in Australian waters, are pushed by the
prevailing winds and currents into Australian waters.
The CSIRO identified that most ghost nets enter the Gulf of Carpentaria from
the northwest and move in a clockwise direction.
The concerns with ghost nets are discussed further in Chapter 5.
In addition, the debris from recreational fishers was identified as a
source of marine plastic pollution. Mr Brad Warren, Executive Chair of
OceanWatch Australia told the committee that Australia has approximately five
million recreational fishers, many of whom are using nylon lines, plastic lures
and plastic bait bags. Many of these items are lost or disposed of at sea.
Mr Warren also noted the ready commercial availability of crab traps which when
lost or abandoned, break down and the nylon netting becomes an entanglement
risk for marine fauna. The plastic then further breaks down into microplastics.
Professor Smith also noted a very recent survey that suggested highly
accessible sections of estuaries in areas of high population density—such as
the Gold Coast seaway—support very high loads of benthic debris which is
dominated by fishing-related items, most notably monofilament line.
Land-based marine pollution
Land-based marine pollution originates from urban and industrial waste
sites, sewage outlets, stormwater, litter transported by systems, and litter
discarded by beach users. The most widely cited figure for the proportion of
marine plastic originating from land-based sources is 80 per cent. However, it
has been argued that 'this figure is not well substantiated and does not inform
the total mass of debris entering the marine environment from land-based
A study published in 2015 by an international team of experts aimed to
estimate the amount of plastic entering the ocean from waste generated on land
by linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density and economic
status. The study estimated that 2.5 billion metric tonnes (MT) of municipal
waste were generated in 2010 by 6.4 billion people living in 192 coastal
countries. Approximately 11 per cent (275 million MT) of the waste
generated was plastic. The study scaled this figure according to the population
living within 50 kilometres of the coastline and estimated that 99.5 million MT
of plastic waste were generated in coastal regions. Of this amount, 31.9
million MT were classified as mismanaged resulting in an estimated 4.8 million
to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean in 2010.
Similarly, the CSIRO indicated that the vast majority of marine debris
entering Australian waters is land-based and generated locally.
In 2011, Dr Hardesty and Dr Chris Wilcox from the CSIRO released Understanding
the types, sources and at-sea distribution of marine debris in Australian
waters which found that:
Overall domestic sources are probably an important
contributor to marine debris in Australia, with debris released in areas of
intense human activity reaching even distant locations along our coastline and
in offshore areas.
While the study found that there is a contribution from international
sources in some areas, Australia is likely to be responsible for plastic
pollution found in the region. It stated that:
Australia is probably a net exporter of debris to some
neighbouring marine regions and surrounding countries. In particular debris
from the densely populated east coast is likely transported toward New Zealand
and into the southwestern Pacific. Debris from the north and west coasts is
likely transported north-westward toward Indonesia and into the north-eastern
The study found that in remote areas, the debris had a higher
composition of refuse from marine industries such as fishing and shipping. However,
in regions near urban areas however there was more debris from coastal inputs.
The study concluded that 'overall, the results suggested that control of
domestic inputs may be the critical issue, whether they are from economic
activities offshore or from coastal sources'.
More recently, the CSIRO led a major national study documenting the
state of marine debris in Australia. The study included coastal and offshore
surveys around the continent, analysis of the impacts of this debris on marine
wildlife, and an evaluation of the likelihood of domestic and foreign sources.
It also investigated the effectiveness of council, regional, and state policies
in reducing the amount of debris entering the marine environment.
This study again suggested that most marine debris in the Australian region is
domestic. It was found that debris in the marine environment appears to
increase with the local population. The data also suggested that areas that
have a high population in the region, but relatively isolated coast, tend to
have high amounts of debris, consistent with illegal dumping.
Professor Smith also stated that the source of marine plastic pollution
is likely to be highly site dependent and linked to adjacent human activities.
He explained that this can vary considerably over even relatively small spatial
For example, on Rottnest Island:
...a proportion of debris on beaches adjacent to visitor
accommodation results from in situ deposition from beach-goers. In
contrast, debris on beaches on the western side of the island is dominated by
fragmented plastics, much of which can be traced to commercial fishing
activities in the region.
The Tangaroa Blue Foundation similarly commented that there are very
significant regional differences in the proportion of ocean- and land-based
debris for coastal sites due to a range of factors including population
density, prevailing wind and current regimes and regional onshore and offshore
activity such as industry, shipping and commercial fishing.
The Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board also
noted that in an assessment of 38 study sites in South Australia, those sites
open to open oceans exhibited higher litter counts associated with
recreational, commercial and boating related activities. The study found that
sites in the metropolitan region showed the highest rate of consumer associated
Urban litter in Australia
Urban litter includes lost or abandoned plastic items, items which fall
out of rubbish bins due to overfilling or windy weather, and plastic debris
which is inadequately secured during transportation. It can include balloons,
plastic bags, single-use consumer items such as straws and food packaging, and
The movement of plastic pollution from urban areas to the marine
environment can occur in a variety of ways. However, a significant contributor
is the stormwater system which often delivers directly to coastal areas, or to
rivers which ultimately deliver to coastal areas.
Professor Smith explained that the sequence of urban debris moving into
the marine environment via the stormwater system is well recognised and that a
number of mitigation measures have been put in place in most urbanised areas.
These measures include gross pollutant traps (GPTs) and education campaigns
such as signs on drains.
The committee received evidence highlighting the volumes of urban litter
recovered in clean-up activities, in both the marine environment and in
the 1997 Stormwater Gross Pollutants Industry Report by
the Cooperative Research Centre for Catchment found that over 12,000 tonnes
per annum of packaging litter had entered Port Phillip Bay;
the South East Queensland Healthy Waterways Rubbish Report
indicated that it collects over 250,000 items of litter each year from 210
kilometres of waterways with the most common item collected being plastic
bottles followed by food packaging;
Liverpool City Council submitted that it removed 1.2 cubic tonnes
of gross pollutants including plastics from 114 GPTs in the 2013–14 financial
year. In addition, 99.4 tonnes of rubbish, including large quantities of
plastic were removed from the Georges River Catchment in 2014–15. The Council
also noted that in 2014–15, a total of 606 cubic metres of rubbish and litter
were removed from riparian, creek and waterway areas;
Georges River Combined Councils' Committee stated that between 25,000
and 50,000 plastics bottles are removed from the river annually.
While it has been long held that most marine pollution is land-based, it
has also been argued that 'this figure is not well substantiated and does not
inform the total mass of debris entering the marine environment from land-based
Professor Smith stated that recent studies are challenging the assumption that
80 per cent of marine debris is sourced from adjacent terrestrial
For example, Professor Smith presented to the committee the results of a study
involving the collection of 632 bottles by volunteers in coastal areas, which
found that 43 per cent were Chinese and South East Asian brands. The
study found that very few of the bottles (6 per cent) had any indication that
they had been in the water very long—this would preclude them from having
originated from overseas. Professor Smith hypothesised that these bottles may
have been disposed of from passing ships.
Country of origin of marine plastic
Marine plastic pollution in Australian waters also originates from
international sources. Ocean currents can transport debris over long distances.
The World Economic Forum commented that according to the best available data, Asia
accounts for more than 80 per cent of the total leakage of plastic into the
The CSIRO also noted that China and Indonesia were particularly significant
sources of plastic pollution.
The CSIRO study found that there is a contribution from international
sources in some areas of Australia, particularly the north-eastern Coral Sea,
Arafura Sea, southern Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean.
For example, large abandoned fishing nets in the Gulf of Carpentaria likely
originate from overseas.
The committee also received evidence from the Northern Territory Seafood
Council based on anecdotal evidence from professional fishers, data from Marine
Ranger groups and other coastal clean-ups of remote northern beaches. The
Council submitted that much of the rubbish in remote northern areas is drifting
into Australian waters and onto reefs and beaches from:
fishing activities to the north of the Australian Fishing Zone
illegal foreign fishing activities inside the AFZ; and
international shipping transiting through northern waters.
Similarly, OceanWatch Australia also submitted that 'the contribution
from overseas sources is potentially significant and underestimated'. The
submission noted that observation of microplastic debris, identification of
parent material, and Australian consumption rates would indicate 'potential for
significant international sources'. OceanWatch Australia went on to highlight
that 'in the case of plastic bottles, further evidence can be found in barcodes
where the trademark of product registration originates from countries in the
Pacific and Southern East Asia'.
OceanWatch Australia stated that:
There seems a reluctance to acknowledge and address the
contribution of plastic waste from international sources. The current domestic
environmental policy focus and funding mechanisms seek to tackle the problem
through monitoring and cleanups within Australian boundaries. Little effort
that we are aware of is applied within potential source countries.
Professor Smith stated that 'a key problem in determining the source of
all items is that fragmented plastics are often the most numerous and there is
no simple way to determine their source'.
Professor Underwood similarly told the committee that there is 'insufficient
research' to answer the question of where marine plastic pollution is sourced.
The products and materials that represent the major sources of marine
Plastic debris found in the marine environment is either larger debris
(macroplastic) or small particles (microplastic). The following provides an
overview of these types of marine plastic pollution.
Macroplastics are composed of a wide variety of industrial, commercial
and consumer items. As noted above, plastic packaging makes up 26 per cent of
plastic production. As a consequence, plastic packaging, which is designed to
be disposed of after a single use and has low rates of recycling, makes up a
large proportion of marine plastic pollution. Of particular concern are
beverage containers and single-use plastic bags.
The Tangaroa Blue Foundation provided information on the top ranking
10 items found in clean-ups around Australia. The first eight are plastic
and four of these relate directly to the packaging.
Figure 2.2: Top 10 items
from Australian beaches and waterways
Source: Tangaroa Blue Foundation, Submission 60, p. 4.
Dr Hardesty noted that approximately 40 per cent of all litter found in
coastal areas is from the beverage industry. Dr Hardesty went on to state that
one bottle can break down into dozens of small pieces.
Clean Up Australia similarly noted that the prevalence of beverage rubbish,
including plastic bottles, has now replaced cigarette butts as the most common
product group removed during clean-ups.
Clean Up Australia estimated in 2009 that over 3.9 billion single-use
plastic bags are consumed each year with the Australian Government believing
that around 2 per cent of these bags enter the litter stream each year.
The Total Environment Centre argued that these estimates were understated. It
told the committee that 'it is reasonable to expect that consumption is over 5
million p.a. and the amount of bags entering the litter stream each year is
likely to be at least 100 million bags p.a.'.
The committee also received evidence that balloons which have either
been accidentally lost or deliberately released, contribute significantly to
plastic pollution which is ingested by marine fauna.
Dr Kathy Townsend from the University of Queensland told the committee that:
...people have quite a cartoon idea of what happens to balloons
when they release them—they just disappear and never come back down again. Of
course that is not the case at all. They go up to the stratosphere, they shred
and then they drop again. They do not drop in front of your feet, so you do not
see them. Any of those massed balloon releases at any of those sorts of events
will eventually come down somewhere.
New South Wales outlawed the mass release of balloons in 1999, and the
maximum that can be released in a single event is 19.
Similarly, the Sunshine Council banned the intentional release of helium
balloons in 2011.
However, the committee received evidence that even small numbers of
balloons can still travel significant distances and enter the marine
environment. For example, Ms Karyn Jones submitted:
In February 2014, I found a bunch of 14 balloons, with only 5
remaining inflated. The bunch had been released from Albury the previous
afternoon, and had travelled over 300 kilometres to a beach south of Bermagui
(this was confirmed by both Albury City Council and the Bureau of Meteorology).
This shows how far helium filled balloons can travel in a short period of time,
from far inland to the marine environment. It also shows how "up to
20" balloons is ludicrous.
Evidence on the distance balloons can travel was also provided by the
Capricorn Conservation Council which stated that 'balloon[s] distributed,
ironically at the 2012 Gladstone EcoFest by Curtis Island LNG a company were
found washed up on Keppel bay beaches 85 kilometres north west'.
Dr Townsend explained that typically balloons are made from two kinds of
plastic polymer—latex-type polymers or foil-type polymers. Latex-type polymers
typically degrade much more quickly than other kinds of plastic, however
immersion in water has been found to slow this process. Foil-type polymers are
essentially the same material as traditional, lightweight plastic bags, and
degrade at similar rates.
Dr Townsend told the committee that researchers have found 'pretty much
fully intact balloons' in the intestines of marine fauna, and that the
gastrointestinal pH is not sufficient to increase degradation. Dr Townsend also
explained that balloons may also be ingested while attached to ribbons or other
pieces of plastic which prevent the item from passing through the animal's
Microplastics are tiny plastic fragments, fibres and granules of less
than five millimetres in size.
There are four major sources of microplastic in the marine environment:
intentionally produced items;
inherent by-products of other products or activities;
emitted through accident or unintentional spill; and
The committee received evidence that in Australia, sewage and stormwater
systems provide important pathways for microplastics to move into the marine
environment. In addition, sewage and other domestic waste is often added to
soils to improve nutrients and reduce water-loss. This process contaminates
soil with microplastics which eventually enter the marine environment through
Intentionally produced items
Microbeads are commercially produced in particle sizes from 10 microns
(μm) to 1000 μm (1 mm). They are generally made from polyethylene and
have a range of commercial uses.
Microbeads are used in products as abrasives including exfoliating personal
care products (PCP) such as face and body wash and toothpaste while other PCP
use microbeads for bulking or slip effect such as shaving foam, lipstick,
mascara or sunscreen. The Total Environment Centre stated that 'a single tube
of deep facial cleanser can contain 350,000 microbeads'.
Clean Up Australia submitted that researchers at Plymouth University
conducted a study of facial scrubs which list plastics as an ingredient. The
study subjected the scrubs to vacuum filtration to obtain the plastic particles
and subsequent analysis using electron microscopy found that each 150 ml
of the products could contain between 137,000 and 2.8 million microparticles of
Industrial products intentionally utilising microplastics include
plastic blasting grit, speciality products used in oil and gas exploration and
printing, and medical products such as dentistry polish.
The Total Environment Centre noted that microbeads disposed of in waste
water are not filtered out in treatment plants. Even with the use of
sophisticated processes for the settling of solids in sewage, which could
remove large amounts of microbeads from effluent, microbeads would still cause
extensive pollution. The Total Environment Centre noted that 'if just 1% of
microbeads escape capture in the sewerage treatment plants across the San
Francisco Bay area, some 471 million microbeads would be released every single
Microplastic by-product includes dust from cutting and polishing plastic
items, maintaining painted metal constructions such as bridges and buildings,
and high pressure washing of painted items. It also includes household and
commercial building dust created through weathering and abrasion of plastic
items and carpet, building maintenance, and clothing fibres loosened during
When synthetic fabrics are laundered, fabric threads are often lost. The
washing machine wastewater containing these fabric fibres then enters the
sewage network and is subsequently discharged into the marine environment via
treatment plants. A single garment can produce >1900 fibres per wash with
polyester (67 per cent) and acrylic (17 per cent) the dominant fibres found in
These fibres are too small to be filtered during processing.
Road dust contains microplastic by-product from tyre friction, road
paint and polymer modified bitumen. In addition, waste handling by-products
often include plastic particles from the shredding and fragmenting of plastic
waste such as mattresses, bottles and plastic bags.
European studies have identified that passenger vehicles have an emission rate
of 0.1 gram of tyre dust per vehicle kilometre travelled. Commercial vehicles
and trucks have more extensive tyre loss.
For example, the Norwegian Environment Agency estimated that 4,500 tonnes of
road dust were produced per annum based on the number of road users, and the
types of vehicles used. The Boomerang Alliance estimated that between 23–24,000
tonnes per annum of tyre dust are potentially entering the marine environment
European studies also identified that road paint, and polymers used to
strengthen bitumen are released into the marine environment through urban
runoff and stormwater systems. The Norwegian Environment Agency estimates that
320 tonnes of road paint per annum were lost through wear and tear.
The processing of plastic products in waste-handling facilities and
recycling facilities can lead to the loss of microplastic dust into the air. For
example, Mr Dave West, National Policy Director and Founder, Boomerang Alliance
told the committee that recent studies in Victoria found that mattress
recycling facilities were losing twenty percent of the product in dust
generated by shredding. Windborne microplastics from waste-handling and
recycling facilities are also likely to end up in the marine environment either
directly, or through transportation in the stormwater system. 
Microplastics unintentionally released into the marine environment
include pre-production plastic pellets (nurdles) being washed into stormwater
drains near plastic extruder or recycling factories. The Surfrider Foundation
Australia commented that studies of the presence of nurdles in five states
found concentrations as high as 6000 nurdles per square metre of beach.
The Total Environment Centre noted that there are a number of causes for
the prevalence of nurdles found in the marine environment. These include
factories having unsound spill-over cleaning practices, and a lack of
mitigation measures to prevent the loss of nurdles into the environment from
the factory floor. In particular, factories hose their buildings and workshop
floors down at night, resulting in pellets washing into drains. In addition,
hopper cars and trucks transporting nurdles are not required to have lids on
their containers which can result in spills.
Stormwater drains are often unfiltered or do not have sufficient
filtering, and are unable to prevent the movement of nurdles into the
stormwater system. The Total Environment Centre explained that the Tangaroa
Blue Foundation has carried out a number of studies examining the prevalence of
nurdles on Australian beaches. In particular, Tangaroa Blue undertook sampling
across 41 broad geographical locations including river systems in Brisbane,
Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide and found concentrations as high as 6,000
nurdles per square metre of beach.
Similarly, research conducted around Brisbane has found pellets located
within the Brisbane River both upstream and downstream from Brisbane's main
industrial and manufacturing areas highlighting the strong possibility of
Degradation of macroplastics
Microplastics are also formed through the degradation of macroplastic
items both within the marine environment, and on land. Plastic degrades through
oxidation, UV exposure, wave action, and animal and insect digestion and
nesting. Macroplastics are also shredded by boat and ship propellers, and
released when plastic contaminated sediment is dredged. Birdlife Australia
cited a study published in 2012 which reported that individual burrowing
isopods (invertebrates) can generate thousands of microplastic particles by
boring into styrofoam floats used in jetties, docks and aquaculture facilities.
The study found that floats from aquaculture facilities and docks were heavily
damaged by thousands of isopods and their burrows and concluded that:
...one isopod creates thousands of microplastic particles when
excavating a burrow; colonies can expel millions of particles.
A number of witnesses told the committee that so-called 'biodegradable
plastics' are particularly prone to breaking into smaller and smaller
particles. For example, Ms Terri-Anne Johnson from Clean Up Australia
highlighted biodegradable plastic bags which 'break down into smaller and
smaller strips of plastic'.
Rates of microplastic pollution in
While it is generally considered that microplastic pollution is
pervasive, few studies have quantified the amount of microplastics in
Australian waters. However, AIMS noted a further study undertaken in 2014 where
researchers from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science conducted a survey of
Sydney Harbour which found 'alarming' levels of microplastic pollution.
Sediment samples taken at 27 sites across the Harbour found concentrations
of microplastics ranged from 0–10 to a high of 61–100 particles per 100 square
millimetres of sediment in Middle Harbour.
The cost of marine plastic pollution
Dr Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO, commented that 'the cost of littering
and debris to fisheries, small business and human health remain poorly
understood, and littering costs to local government due to remediation and
tourism losses are substantial'.
In answer to the committee's questions concerning the estimates of the damage
from marine debris on Australia's tourism, fishing and shipping, the Department
of the Environment added that it did not have any estimates nor did other
Commonwealth agencies including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority,
the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Australian Fisheries Management
One source of evidence on the cost of marine plastic pollution is the
recently released report by the World Economic Forum which commented that the
externalities related to the use of plastics and plastic packaging are
concentrated in three areas:
degradation of natural systems as a result of leakage, especially
in the ocean;
greenhouse gas emissions resulting from production and after-use
health and environmental impacts from substances of concern.
The World Economic Forum cited a 2014 study by the UNEP which estimated
the total natural capital cost of plastics in the consumer goods industry at
$75 billion, of which $40 billion was related to plastic packaging.
The UNEP study pointed to the significant impact of ocean plastic on maritime
natural capital. It was estimated that the annual damage of plastics to marine
ecosystems is at least US$13 billion per year. The Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) also estimated that the cost of marine plastic pollution to
the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was US$1.3 billion in that region.
The World Economic Forum commented specifically on the costs of plastic
packaging and stated:
A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection
systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of
vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure. The
cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost
associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, has been
estimated conservatively by UNEP at $40 billion—exceeding the plastic packaging
industry's profit pool.
In addition, the World Economic Forum noted that as a consequence of low
recycling rates, 95 per cent of plastic packaging material value (US$80–120
billion) is lost to the economy after a short first use.
A further matter raised in submissions was the cost of clean-ups by volunteers.
Clean Up Australia submitted that cost of community effort to reduce marine
plastic pollution is undervalued. Clean Up Australia estimated that the cost of
holding Clean Up Australia Day was $35.216 million per annum. This was based on
the value of volunteers (1,052,536 volunteer hours at an average wage rate of
$31.11 per hour), pro bono services (including local government rubbish
collection services) of at least $1 million as well as event related
expenditure and management and administration costs.
Similarly, the value of volunteer efforts to clean up the Georges River were
estimated to be $2.8 million over four years.
The cost of removing litter, including plastic debris, were provided to
the committee. For example, in 2012–13, the Victorian Government spent $80
million in removing litter, including the removal of over 7,800 tonnes of
litter from Melbourne waterways.
The committee notes that, in addition to the direct economic costs,
there are also potential adverse impacts on human livelihoods and health, food
chains and other essential economic and societal systems.
International initiatives on marine pollution
A range of global initiatives have been developed to ensure
international cooperation in reducing the rates of marine pollution, and in
reducing the harm associated with such pollution. These initiatives include The
Honolulu Strategy, the Honolulu Commitment and the Global Partnership on Marine
Litter. The United Nations Environment Assembly and UNEP have both also noted
marine plastic as an issue of concern.
The Honolulu Strategy
In 2011, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
co-hosted the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference in conjunction with
the United Nations Environment Programme. The conference resulted in the
development of the Honolulu Strategy which is a framework for the global effort
to reduce the impacts of marine debris.
The Honolulu Strategy Goals are:
reduced amount and impact of land-based sources of marine debris
introduced into the sea;
reduced amount and impact of sea-based sources of marine debris
(including solid waste, lost cargo, ALDFG, and abandoned vessels) introduced
into the sea;
reduced amount and impact of accumulated marine debris on
shorelines, in benthic habitats, and in pelagic waters.
In addition to the Honolulu Strategy, the Honolulu Commitment was also
developed. This is a 12 point pledge to which international organisations,
governments, non-government organisations and citizens are encouraged to
commit. The pledge includes making choices to reduce waste, facilitating
initiatives that turn waste into a resource in an environmentally sustainable
manner, developing global, regional, national and local targets to reduce
Global Partnership on Marine Litter
The Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) was launched at the
Rio+20 meeting in Brazil in 2012. It is a voluntary open-ended partnership for
international agencies, governments, businesses, academia, local authorities,
nongovernmental organisations and individuals.
The launch of the GPML complemented paragraph 163 of the Rio outcome
document, The Future We Want, which noted with concern that the health
of oceans and marine biodiversity are negatively affected by marine pollution,
including marine debris, especially plastic and committed to take action to
reduce the incidence and impacts of such pollution on marine ecosystems.
The GPML seeks:
to reduce the impacts of marine litter worldwide on economies,
ecosystems, animal welfare and human health;
to enhance international cooperation and coordination through the
promotion and implementation of the Honolulu Strategy and the Honolulu
to promote knowledge management, information sharing and
monitoring of progress on the implementation of the Honolulu Strategy;
to promote resource efficiency and economic development through
waste prevention e.g. the 4Rs (reduce, re-use, recycle and re-design), and by
recovering valuable material and/or energy from waste;
increase awareness on sources of marine litter, their fate and
to assess emerging issues related to the fate and potential
influence of marine litter, including (micro) plastics uptake in the food web
and associated transfer of pollutants, and conservation and welfare of marine
UN Environment Assembly and the UN
The UN General Assembly addressed the issue of marine litter in November
2005 and a resolution was passed. Following the resolution, a series of
consultations occurred in cooperation with a number of UN agencies, and it was
decided that the United Nations Environment Programme should take the lead in
developing global and regional activities on marine litter.
In June 2014, governments attending the first UN Environment Assembly
noted with concern the impacts of plastics and microplastics on the marine
environment, fisheries, tourism and development. They called for strengthened
action, in particular by addressing such materials at the source. A resolution
was adopted calling for the strengthening of information exchange mechanisms,
requesting UNEP to present scientific assessments on microplastics for
consideration by the next session of the Assembly.
The committee acknowledges both the magnitude, and the pervasiveness of marine
plastic pollution. Evidence clearly demonstrates that this is an issue of
global concern with vast quantities of plastic entering the marine environment
on a daily basis. The committee understands that calculating the exact rates of
plastic pollution into the future is difficult, but is of the view that
estimates of current rates of pollution are sufficiently high as to warrant
immediate action. The committee also accepts that marine plastic pollution in
the Australian marine environment is difficult to quantify, but that amounts
recovered through clean-up activities would point to the problem being
Marine plastic pollution originates from both land- and ocean-based sources,
and as such mitigation strategies must be designed to address both. There is
evidence that in the Australian context, there are both domestic and
international sources—these include urban litter, garbage from shipping, and
abandoned fishing gear from international fishing operations. The committee was
presented with comprehensive evidence of the enormous volume of single-use
plastic packaging associated with the food and beverage industry found in
marine plastic pollution.
Plastic, unless it is removed from the marine environment, will continue
to exist, albeit in increasingly smaller sizes. The committee notes with
concern the evidence provided on the threat posed by microplastics. In
particular, the inability to easily measure the rates of microplastic
pollution, the wide variety of microplastic sources, and the impossibility of
removing microplastics from the marine environment through clean-up activities.
The committee accepts the evidence that plastic has a number of
externalities, such as the degradation of natural systems including the marine environment,
and costs to government and community. The committee is of the view that these
externalities must be further explored in order to fully understand the costs
associated with marine plastic pollution in Australia
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