Environmental groups and researchers call for action on marine plastic pollution


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18-02-2016 06:27 PM


ABC Canberra 666

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ABC Canberra 666


18-02-2016 06:27 PM



18-02-2016 07:29 PM

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2016-02-18 18:27:25

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Environmental groups and researchers call for action on marine plastic pollution -

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MARK COLVIN: Every Cleanup Australia Day volunteers collect an average of half a million plastic bags, many of them from our beaches and waterways.

It's just part of Australia's contribution to the eight million tonnes or so of plastic that enters the world's oceans each year.

Plastic bags and microbeads are having a disastrous effect on marine life, poisoning some creatures and entangling others.

Researchers and environmental groups hope a Senate inquiry, underway today, will lead to policy changes.

Sarah Sedghi reports.

SARAH SEDGHI: At Sydney's famous Taronga Zoo the Wildlife Hospital treats hundreds of animals each year. Many are marine creatures which have become tangled in plastic and debris, or mistaken plastic for food.

The hospital does its best to rehabilitate the animals but some don't make it.

The hospital's manager Libby Hall says it's distressing to see animals suffer from what is preventable harm.

LIBBY HALL: We have a turtle at the moment whose front flipper needed to be amputated because it was tangled in fishing line.

We've had many marine turtles come in with ingested plastics, some of those survive and some of them don't survive.

We just released a marine turtle that had ingested plastic as a tiny hatchling. Andrew came in at 56 grams, which fitted in the palm of your hand, and then he'd already ingested plastic at that age.

SARAH SEDGHI: A Senate inquiry is underway examining the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia.

Professor Steve Smith from Southern Cross University's Marine Ecology Research Centre says the amount of plastic reaching the ocean is growing.

STEVE SMITH: Well plastic pollution is something that has been increasing almost exponentially, with predictions to reach astronomical figures by 2050 in some of the most recent reports.

So we're talking about an insidious problem and one which has had proven impacts on a range of marine life, types of marine life already.

SARAH SEDGHI: He's made a submission to the inquiry and says the way forward is clear.

STEVE SMITH: Ultimately the only solution to this is really to cut plastic at source. So reduce the demand, find alternative products and gradually reduce the plastic load on the planet. That's going to take a long, long time and there are innovative solutions which people are trying to look at, at the moment.

But in the meantime what we have to do is address the mismanagement of plastic and see how everybody can help reduce the amount of plastic that makes its way into the ocean.

SARAH SEDGHI: Silke Stuckenbrock is one of the founders of the Two Hands Project, dedicated to cleaning up plastic pollution.

She agrees limiting plastics will help.

SILKE STUCKENBROCK: There are certain items that actually sink - plastic bags, straws, disposable cutlery, coffee cup lids - all these items actually sink, so we also have looked at what's underneath the surface and there you really see what's happening. What's on the beaches is just the tip of it.

SARAH SEDGHI: When that plastic reaches the ocean it's devastating marine life.

A recent study by researchers at the CSIRO and Imperial College London found nearly 60 per cent of all seabird species they studied had plastic in their gut.

Dr Jennifer Lavers, a research fellow at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, has been studying the effect of plastics on seabirds, particularly the shearwater.

JENNIFER LAVERS: That plastic itself has an impact on the adult birds who are consuming it in the first place and then it also has a very significant impact on the chick that's sitting back in the nest.

And what we know from some work that we've done on Lord Howe Island is that the more plastic you consume, the more plastic that you feed to your chick, the less likely that your chick will be successful, the more likely that it will have things like reduced wing length.

So it'll be very stunted in its growth. It'll probably be somewhat emaciated if not verging on starvation and so those birds that feed their chicks large amounts of plastic don't do very well. They don't contribute much to the population and the big question is whether or not these failures, largely the result of plastic, are contributing to things like population decline.

SARAH SEDGHI: She says Australia can make a huge contribution to a problem affecting the world's oceans.

JENNIFER LAVERS: The plastic that they're picking up, that is basically the story that the birds are telling us is really a local story about what's in and around the Tasman Sea waters, and a lot of the products that we find, a lot of the brand names that we find, the pieces of plastic that the birds are bringing back to Lord Howe Island are Australian in origin. So we really do know that Australian has an important role to play in the plastic pollution problem that's happening.

MARK COLVIN: Dr Jennifer Lavers, a research fellow at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, ending Sarah Sedghi's report.