Dave West exposes the extent of plastic being released into the Australian marine environment.
BLOG: Sources & Distribution of Plastic in our Oceans
Dave West, August 2016
“There are plastics in your toaster, in the blender and the clock, in the lamp and in the roaster, on the door and in the lock, in the washer and the dryer and the garden tools you lend, in your music amplifier and electric fryer—you have got a plastic friend!”
DuPont: “The Wonderful World of Chemistry” at the 1964 New York World's Fair
In 1964 these words were meant to excite consumers about the new material that would make their life so much easier – 50 years on and we are now understanding how true they were – plastic is everywhere but while it’s been useful - it certainly isn’t our friend.
Plastics have become so pervasive within modern life that in many instances we don’t even recognise the goods we use are plastic (e.g. ‘synthetic’ clothes are 100% plastic, ‘rubber tyres’ contain twice as much plastic as natural rubber). Similarly, over half the plastic pollution generated annually (and in turn entering our waterways) is commonly unidentified as a threat in government studies and policy.
Plastic generates solid waste pollution in every step of its lifecycle: manufacture, distribution, use and disposal. Over time this material will be exposed to weather, be abraded, and fragment into smaller pieces; and while eventually too small to readily see, will persist in our environment as a microplastic (100nm - <5mm diameter) or nanoplastic (less than <100 nm). While there has been much publicity regarding microplastics, nanoscale sized particles are a largely ignored aspect of plastic pollution that represents a major threat. They are of a scale where they can be directly ingested by plankton and consequently are digestible by 97-98% of the food chain – an issue with real consequences for our health and the seafood industry.
Using CSIRO estimates we believe there are around 124.23million pieces of plastic litter along the Australian coastline (on average 3,461 per km of coastline) and some 34.9billion pieces of plastic floating in Australia’s sovereign waters (our economic exclusion zone less our Antarctic waters). Those estimates don’t include microplastics which have been too small to be captured by these initial studies – shockingly, our preliminary testing from over 100 surveys around the Australian coastline are indicating that there are approximately 60,000 pieces along each km of Australian shoreline – indicating that the true extent of microplastic pollution may be some 17 times higher than CSIRO estimates.
The major sources of microplastics include:
- General plastic packaging (e.g. bottles and bags) and products that have been torn or broken down into small pieces
- Nurdles – which are pellets and flakes of plastic resin used in plastics extrusion and manufacture
- Microbeads – tiny plastic pellets used in a range of products as abrasives. In particular there is growing concern about the use of microbeads in personal care and laundry products.
Nanoplastics are even smaller particles of plastic pollution. The generation of nanoscale particles is undisputed, but due to the difficulty of identifying microscopic sized materials in our oceans, it has been largely unquantified. Nearly all plastic marine debris will continue to degrade and abrade until they eventually reach a nano scale size. However, there are a number of key sources where the pollution is at a nanoscale size at their point of release into the ocean. These include the synthetic rubber dust released from tyres during their normal use; the release of synthetic fibres during household laundry and cleaning; and the release of plastic dust particles during the use and maintenance of plastic products like exterior paint and plastic coatings. Boomerang Alliance believes there are at least 32,000 tonnes of micro and nano scale particles released in Australia each year – all of which has the potential to reach our marine environment.
Critically, public policy should be focussed on the original and primary sources of marine plastic pollution. The policy responses should be focussed on plastic products and packaging with reference to their supply and disposal chains – not on the consequent microplastic by-products.
While the true extent of marine plastic pollution continues to be better understood, there is still a poor understanding of the overall problem. It is becoming increasing apparent that:
- While aspects of plastic pollution in the marine environment are now well understood (i.e. coastal litter, floating plastic debris in the oceans and ghost nets (abandoned and lost fishing gear) - there are key aspects of marine plastic pollution still largely unquantified (i.e. nanoplastic fibres and particles, plastic pollution buried in the seabed, the levels of microbeads and nurdles released into our waterways). This needs to be rectified.
- While a global issue, the problem of marine plastic pollution is local – CSIRO, many scientists and NGOs unanimously agree that the overwhelming majority of plastic found along our oceans and coastline was produced domestically.
- The growth rate of plastic production indicates the amount of plastic entering our marine environment is doubling every 11 years.
The Australian government’s attempts to quantify our waste streams are notoriously understated and efforts to quantify the amount of plastic consumed and disposed of in Australia have been dramatically understated. The most recent National Waste Report in 2011 estimated that there was 2.188 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in Australia. Yet these reports fail to identify any synthetic products like textiles or even car tyres. Alternative estimates based on the production of plastics in Australia are equally flawed as they miss the proportion of consumption of imported plastic products and packaging.
This is very significant – it doesn’t take an expert to recognise that manufacturing in Australia is declining and subsequently basing an estimate of pollution on local production levels is going to be badly understated. Just last year, Boomerang Alliance finally succeeded in getting the controversial Australian Packaging Covenant to upgrade its estimates to include the plastic packaging that arrives in Australia on imported goods – the results were staggering with the amount of plastic packaging consumed almost doubling from 544,000 tonnes p.a. to over 944,000tonnes p.a.
The rate of plastic consumption growth outlined via National Waste reporting shows consumption growth from 2008 (1.71million tonnes) to 2011 (2.188 million tonnes) - establishing an apparent plastic consumption growth rate of 9.3% p.a.
To identify the extent to which reporting on plastics consumption in Australia may be understated, Boomerang Alliance undertook an extensive desktop review of publicly available information and obtained data from Customs to identify the total plastics consumed in Australia annually (see Table below).
While Boomerang Alliance does not suggest this analysis is exact, it is far closer to the reality than previous government efforts. To check our estimates’ validity, the writer made two simple comparisons (both of which indicate that if anything, our estimates are still conservative):
- Consumption per capita with other affluent developed economies. The estimated total plastic consumption reported via National Waste Reports is very low compared to other affluent societies – 97kgs per capita when compared to North America (139kgs/capita) or Western Europe (136kgs/capita). At 130kgs per capita the level of plastics consumption in Australia would be approx. 3 million tonnes p.a.
- If Australia’s share of global GDP (1.04%) reflects our proportion of global consumption in plastic (as it does in most commodities) Australian plastic consumption is 3.11million tonnes p.a.
Which Plastics and Impact?
Having identified the scale of plastic consumption in Australia, the next critical question is what plastics are likely to end their life in our waterways? Theoretically, the answer is all of them – at every stage of their manufacture, distribution, use and disposal, plastics create pollution and over time the lightweight and often buoyant nature of plastics means (without intervention) all or some will be transported via wind and stormwater into the marine environment. To determine the threat (i.e. the likelihood of different types of plastics entering the marine environment) the writer sought to identify the way different plastic pollution sources reach our waters. Once again the purpose of the Chart is to provide a broad estimate not an empiric assessment.
The bubble chart provides a visible representation of the threats of different plastics. The bigger the bubble the larger the pollution source and the higher the bubble is positioned - the greater the threat. The further to the right, the greater the likelihood the material will enter the marine environment. Based on the data available and using projections developed from the only other paper that is aimed at identifying the levels of microplastic pollution generated (over and above those estimates for debris and litter), we concluded that between 99-130,000 tonnes of Australian consumed plastic has the potential to enter our marine environment each year. It is important to note that this is much higher than other estimates. However, Boomerang Alliance could find no Australian studies which covered the identified range of plastics known to be polluting our waterways including consideration of:
- Any allowances for plastics that have a high specific gravity and sink when they enter our waterways – The World Ocean Review 2010 notes that “70% of litter eventually sinks to the sea floor”;
- Making estimates of the potential plastic pollution that is not currently included in reporting (plastic dust released from the wear and tear of synthetic tyres – 23,000 tonnes/p.a.; fibres released while washing synthetic clothing – at least 6,000 tonnes);
- Industrial pollution (loss of pellets and flake from plastic manufacturing facilities; lightweight plastics escaping waste facilities etc.) – another 15,000 + tonnes); and
- Imported packaging and products increasing the amount of litter generated (50% more than previously identified).
- Future Threat Abatement Plans for marine debris and plastics generally need to expand their focus towards the amount of plastic generated domestically, rather than continue to focus on international and shipping sources and voluntary programs as primary aspects.
- The Australian government should immediately commission a study to better and quickly assess the amount of plastic pollution entering each year and prevalent in (ie legacy and microplastic plastic) the marine environment. It should include those sources of plastic that have been ignored in previous estimates (synthetic clothing, other synthetic textiles, tyre dust; plastic resin pellets; primary microplastics etc.).
- Australian and state governments should immediately redefine synthetic textiles and rubber to group them within plastics estimates.
- Priority must be given to potential actions that can be taken to mitigate the rate plastic enters the marine environment, including bans and product stewardship.
 National Waste Report Waste Generation and Resource Recovery Data Workbooks
 Sourced from the 2013-14 Annual Plastics Recycling Survey
 See http://www.smh.com.au/environment/australian-packaging-industry-falling-short-of-recycling-goal-may-cut-target-20150702-gi39h0
 Extrapolated from figures in the 2014 National Waste Report and NSW EPA audits of C&I and C&D waste and recycling
 Estimated from Australia’s Customs and ABS data
 Calculated from “End-of-Life Domestic Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Equipment in Australia” see: https://www.environment.gov.au/protection/national-waste-policy/publications/end-of-life-domestic-rac-equipment-australia
 Total tyres based on Hyder End of Life Tyre 2015 Study. Plastic proportion based on Tyre Life Boomerang Alliance 2015.
 Estimate based on Aust Government Product Stewardship RIS studies
 Hyder Consulting Plastic Retail Carry Bag Use 2008
 Extrapolated from the 1996 ANZECC Review of Marine Debris
 Tobacco Institute of Australia
 Extrapolated from Norwegian Study “Sources of Microplastic Pollution” 2014
 See Sources of Microplastic Pollution to the Marine Environment - Norwegian Environment Agency (Miljødirektoratet): http://www.miljodirektoratet.no/Documents/publikasjoner/M321/M321.pdf
For more information see the following papers: