‘Plastic is literally everywhere’: the epidemic attacking Australia’s oceans | Environment

While heading down the Brisbane river, Jim Hinds once pulled aboard a drunken half-naked man just seconds from “going down for the last time”.

But on this day, like most other days for Hinds, it’s back to the horribly predictable as he launches his boat into the Nerang river on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Instantly you see it.

Decaying plastic bags hanging from the branches of mangroves like dripping flesh; slicks of plastic water bottles and food containers waiting ashore for the liberation of the next rising tide; the misnamed “disposable” plastic and styrofoam drinking cups; and other plastic paraphernalia in various stages of disintegration.

“Everyone knows littering’s wrong – that’s not a secret. But it’s just nonsensical,” says Jim. His son Patrick, 21, has jumped ashore to pick up a vinyl soccer ball and about a dozen soft drinks bottles.

Hinds works for Queensland charity Healthy Land and Water. His job is to travel the coastal waterways and pick up rubbish – he’ll often have one of his two sons with him. His father also used to do the job.

In recent years, he has been grabbing about 10,000 items a month. “Consistently we’re getting plastic bottles – there are so many of them,” Jim says.

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Rubbish strewn on Chilli beach in Queensland. Photograph: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

Hinds is working at the coalface of an epidemic of plastic pollution which, Guardian Australia has found, is attacking Australia’s beaches, waterways and oceans, and the animals that live there.

From the most remote wilderness idylls to city coastlines, scientists and citizens have collected and documented millions of pieces of plastic debris.

Out at sea, expeditions skimming ocean waters, circumnavigating the continent, have found concentrations of plastics as high as 9,000 pieces for every square kilometre.

Sediment taken from the bottom of estuaries running through busy Australian towns contains tiny microplastic pieces and scientists find the same thing when they examine samples of the ocean floor hundreds of kilometres offshore.

“Plastic is everywhere, all of the time,” says Dr Denise Hardesty, a principal research scientist at CSIRO. “It is in the air, the wind, the water and the soil and we find it in as many places as we look.”

In late 2012 and 2013, Hardesty experienced a series of “gut-wrenching” research trips by floatplane to some of the most remote parts of Australia – the west coast of Tasmania and the Kimberley region in Western Australia.

“These places are pristine … quote, unquote,” she says. “You walk on to these beaches and no matter where you are there’s trash and it’s so confronting. Everywhere you go, you see it.”

Hardesty is helping to lead a global CSIRO project to understand how and why plastics are escaping the legitimate waste and recycling streams and where and how they travel. Her team’s confronting trips to so-called pristine beaches were part of a study published in late 2016 that had eventually counted litter at 175 coastal sites around the continent.

About three of every four items documented were plastic and the study concluded a key cause was, simply, littering. “In general, most of the trash is coming from us,” Hardesty says.

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Tangaroa Blue volunteers retrieving ghost nets at a beach in Mapoon, Queensland. Photograph: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

The scientific literature is awash with research documenting plastics of all sizes in every environment that’s been studied – from the deep ocean to both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Microplastic is the term used to describe any piece of plastic less than 5mm wide – it’s mostly the broken-apart remnants of straws, fishing nets and all manner of other plastic items, creating trillions of tiny pieces.

Dr Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, has spent the past 15 years studying the impacts of plastics.

In 2015 Lavers travelled to one of the most remote spots on the planet – the uninhabited Henderson Island in the middle of the Pacific – to find this world heritage-listed coral atoll’s beaches strewn with an estimated 37m pieces of plastic weighing about 17 tonnes – the equivalent of less than two seconds of global plastic production.

Just one washed-up fishing net, barely a decade old, was disintegrating into trillions of plastic fibres that gave the surrounding sand a lucid green splash.

“You can’t prepare yourself for moments like that,” she says.

Northern Australia is a known hotspot for these so-called “ghost nets” that are left to haunt the lives of marine animals. One project, GhostNets Australia, has collected more than 13,000 nets since 2004. A study analysed 9,000 nets found in the north of Australia and estimated that they alone had probably caught between 4,866 and 14,600 turtles.

“Nowhere is safe, and plastic is literally everywhere,” says Lavers. “No location and no species is likely to remain immune for any period of time. It is ubiquitous. We are literally drowning in this stuff.”

Plastic tsunami

Chilli beach is a two-hour drive north from the Aboriginal community of Lockhart River, north of Cairns in Kutini-Payamu national park.

Heidi Taylor, the founder of charity Tangaroa Blue, takes a team of volunteers, school children and traditional owners up to the area each year to clear the beach. In 2013 the first year the group did a full “clean sweep” of the 7km-long beach, they gathered 5.5 tonnes of material.

“But for every one full item, there was probably 100 fragments that were scattered – like colourful confetti through the sand,” Taylor says. “Every time you went to pick something up, it would disintegrate in your hands because it had been there for decades.”

In five years, the group went from grabbing 5.5 tonnes a visit to just 2.3 tonnes. But in 2017, they gathered seven tonnes, probably thanks to cyclones in the Pacific pushing older material on to Australia’s shores.

There is an Aboriginal community at Mapoon, north of Weipa on the west of Cape York. Their 14km beach is another regular location for Tangaroa Blue’s work.

In recent years, an Indonesian government crackdown on illegal fishing in the Arafura Sea has seen a drop in the number of ghost nets hitting the beach.

But in 2017, the group was shocked when they arrived to find 10,601 plastic drink bottles from a 7km stretch – and most of them were the popular Indonesian brand Danone Aqua.


Our wide brown land: Welcome to the plastic beach – video

“Plastic is one of the most useful materials we have ever created. Our problem is not with plastic as a material but what we use it for. We make so many things that don’t require the longevity that plastic has – we don’t need a straw that we will use to sip one drink that will stay in the environment forever,” Taylor says.

As well as running beach cleanups, Tangaroa Blue has coordinated data from cleanups run by other groups around Australia since 2004.

The data covers 2,460 different sites with more than 878 tonnes of material removed over 14 years, and it shows about three-quarters of what is collected is plastic. For comparison, that’s about the same weight as 535 Holden utes. The database has just recorded its 10 millionth piece of debris.

So, while the evidence for the ubiquity of plastics is clear, Lavers says much less is known about the impact of this tsunami of plastics on the habitats and species that are taking it in. “When it comes to wildlife our knowledge is constrained to individual level impacts,” she says.

Even though reports of single whales with stomachs filled with plastic bags and ropes are incredibly graphic and distressing, Lavers says “the scientific question becomes … so what?”

Understanding the impact of the ingestion of plastics on whole animal populations and habitats is now a major scientific challenge. “Is plastic either now, or likely to be, a driver of population decline for any given species,” she asks.

“The answer to that question is almost invariably ‘we don’t know.’ It isn’t that the plastic doesn’t have the capacity to do that, but it is very difficult to document.”

She says while it’s easier to observe the impact of plastic on a species in a laboratory environment, it is much more difficult to tease apart its impact in the real world when species are already being hit by other impacts such as climate change, coastal developments, disease or overfishing. “We are in a big data gap,” she says.

In 2013 Lavers published a journal paper looking at Australian flesh-footed shearwater birds. She found they were likely more contaminated by plastic than any other known marine vertebrate studied anywhere else in the world.

But Lavers also hypothesised the plastic ingestion could be cutting the survival rates of chicks by about 11% annually.

“The smaller the piece of plastic, the more species consume it. Everything that’s tiny is at the base of the food web, so it’s not just albatross and sperm whales, you literally have microplastics and nanoplastics being eaten by sea cucumbers, corals, clams and muscles, zooplankton and krill – right at the very base of the food web. You have all levels of the food web infiltrated. And where the plastics go, the chemicals follow.”

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A dissected flesh-footed shearwater bird taken from Lord Howe Island in 2017, with plastic pieces from its stomach arranged beside it. Photograph: Jennifer Lavers

According to Lavers, research has found that plastics act as a vehicle to transport toxins and metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic into the tissues of animals.

Her own studies, and those of other scientists, have shown that such metals can be transferred from the plastics eaten by animals into their tissues. Toxic chemicals have also been found to leach into the tissues of animals via the plastics they have eaten.

“We should not simply wait for or demand more data before we can make a decision,” she says. “We should default to the likely outcome. If danger is possible, we should heed the warning and do something to prevent it.”

Policy response

Campaigners have had some success in persuading governments to introduce container deposit schemes where plastics can be recycled for cash. South Australians have been returning plastics and other items since 1977.

In early 2013, the beverage giants Coca-Cola Amatil, Lion Nathan and Schweppes successfully fought the Northern Territory’s then-new container deposit scheme in the courts. The government changed the rules but reintroduced the scheme, which has been running since August 2013.

The New South Wales scheme has been running since December 2017, while the Australian Capital Territory’s scheme is due to start at the end of June 2018. Queensland says its scheme will start in November 2018 and in Western Australia, a program will start in 2019. Tasmania and Victoria have no concrete plans.

These schemes do work. A CSIRO study in Australia and the US looked at the numbers of drinks containers found in coastal areas where container deposit laws were in place. The study found that by financially incentivising members of the public to recycle, there were about 40% fewer plastic drinks containers recorded in litter surveys.

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Plastic draping plants in the Torres Strait. Photograph: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

Bans on single-use plastic bags will roll out this year in Victoria, WA and Queensland, joining existing bans in NT, SA, the ACT and Tasmania.

There is a lot of evidence that these schemes have a significant impact on litter,” Hardesty says. “Cash for containers works,” she says. “But what I keep coming back to is the thought that all the stuff we find out there was once in a person’s hand. That means you can make a change.”

Lavers agrees that the bans are welcome but says governments have been far too slow to introduce schemes that have been shown to work.

“If we want change and we want the quantity of plastics going into the ocean to go down, then the rate of change in our society needs to exceed the rate of plastics going into the ocean,” she says. “And right now we are not even close.”

While the new legislation is likely to slow down the wave of plastic pollution hitting Australia’s coastal waters, there’s little that could be done about the mountains of plastic that’s already out there. “I don’t think going out there and cleaning it all up is a super viable proposition,” she says.

Both Lavers and Hardesty think what’s needed is a societal shift in how communities and businesses use and recycle plastics.

“Plastics never really go away … where is this magical mystical place we call ‘away’,” asks Lavers. “We know plastics take anywhere between 100 and 10,000 years to break up … and I don’t use the term ‘break down’. It never breaks down and goes away.”

Back on the Nerang river and the collection bin on Jim Hinds’s boat is full with plastic strips, balls, bags, bottles and food wrappers. He is feeling philosophical but not hopeless.

“I think people are careless,” he says. “I don’t think there are a lot of villains.

“I always hope that it’s generational – that the next generation will be better than ours. I guess that’s the great hope.”