How can we stem the tide of a plastic-polluted future?

By EDO NSW Senior Policy & Law Reform Solicitor Nari Sahukar

15 October 2015

The harm caused by plastic pollution in the marine environment is well established. In our submission to a Senate inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution, EDOs of Australia make a number of recommendations on how to improve Australia's laws and policies on marine plastic pollution.

UPDATE January 2017: The Australian Government has initiated a review of the Threat Abatement Plan for the Impacts of Marine Debris on Vertebrate Marine Species (2017). Read more »

UPDATE May 2016: The Senate Committee has now released its report, in which it makes 23 recommendations. The NSW Government has also committed to launching a container deposit scheme.

An image from a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) campaign in 2006 shows a small green turtle peeping out from dark waves at night, edging her way up the sand. On closer inspection, this turtle is made of plastic. A tag line reads ‘The future is man made.’

The campaign highlighted the plight of Australia’s and the world’s turtles and other endangered species. Turtles and their marine companions are at the mercy of multiple threats that only we humans can resolve, like climate change, fishing by-catch and plastic pollution.

The Future Is Man Made
Image from the 2006 WWF campaign

Plastic pollution and what to do about it

The environmental harm caused by plastic pollution in the marine environment is well established. Coastal assessments have shown that 60 to 80 percent of marine debris consists of plastic. The amount of seaborne plastic, and the harm it causes, are projected to grow significantly unless we intervene and innovate at many levels, in Australia and abroad.

Marine plastic pollution from Australia and elsewhere has local and global consequences. It impacts on federally-protected species such as migratory shorebirds, whales, sharks and turtles, who ingest plastic or become entangled in it.

A recent CSIRO study into the sources, distribution and fate of marine debris provides important background on the impacts.

State laws regulate plastic pollution and waste, but don’t deal well with cumulative impacts

The CSIRO finds that around three quarters of plastic pollution in Australian coastal waters comes from domestic, land-based sources. For example, litter from drink containers, plastic bags and packaging, manufacturing and consumer waste. Then there’s the growing problem of ‘microplastics’ – microbeads from cosmetic, shampoo and laundry products, industrial offcuts, and fragments of other plastics as they break down over hundreds of years. Marine plastic pollution is therefore a cumulative and systemic problem of production, consumption and waste disposal systems.

In Australia, the states and territories have primary responsibility for environmental laws (although marine debris is a key threatening process under the national EPBC Act).

At the industrial scale, land-based sources of plastic pollution are regulated through state pollution and waste laws. For example, all states have offences for dumping waste without a permit and for polluting waters. Some industrial facilities require a pollution licence, which can limit what substances they can legally emit.

Unfortunately, existing laws don’t deal very well with cumulative impacts, including to the marine environment. And illegal behaviour can be difficult to detect or prosecute. Governments should increase guidance and enforcement action on a cost-recovery basis, consistent with the polluter pays principle that underpins state and federal law.

When it comes to litter that could end up in our waterways and the sea, local councils and community groups are often on the front line. State and federal funding for local education and infrastructure such as stormwater traps is important here. But up front measures such as container deposit schemes (cash for containers) and plastic bag bans can stem the tide of litter entering streets and waterways in the first place.

Reducing plastic waste through mandatory product stewardship

Container deposits and plastic bag bans are already helping address plastic pollution in many parts of Australia and overseas.

Container deposits have a proven track record in regulating drink container litter. They internalise the costs of littering and create community incentives to recycle more. Community groups and individuals can earn 10 cents a bottle, more plastic is recycled, and less ends up in the stomachs of sea birds, turtles and marine mammals.

South Australia has had cash for containers since the mid-1970s. And the community and environment ministers resoundingly backed the Northern Territory scheme after beverage companies challenged it in the High Court. Now NSW has promised to implement a container deposit scheme by 2017.

Four out of eight States and Territories now have legislated plastic bag bans in place – SA, NT, Tasmania and the ACT. This is good news for turtles who mistake plastic bags for a key food source – jellyfish.

Stewardship of marine life starts with good stewardship on land

Turtles are symbolic of Australia’s natural heritage, and the world’s biodiversity. The future of this common wealth of ours – and the laws that that protect it – will be made by women and men on many levels: through the decisions we all make daily as concerned citizens, consumers and product producers, and through the decisions of policy-makers, Senators, Environment Ministers, and all levels of government.

To improve law and policy on marine plastic pollution, EDOs of Australia have called for the following:

  • additional measures to reduce key sources of marine plastic pollution (for example, extending container deposit schemes and bans on single-use plastic bags); 
  • better resourcing for existing pollution offences, infrastructure and education (internalising costs through a polluter pays approach);
  • timely state and federal cooperation on regulatory standards and incentives (without delaying effective state efforts like the schemes mentioned above); 
  • supporting industry to improve manufacturing, supply chain and disposal standards, with a view to practical phase-out of harmful plastic sources; and
  • examining Australia’s oversight of fishing gear and garbage disposal at sea, and our capacity-building role in reducing plastic in the Asia-Pacific oceans.

For more background and recommendations, see our recent Senate Inquiry submission on marine plastic pollution.

 

References and further links