Environmental groups say the Australian government lacks leadership in tackling marine plastic pollution with no new national threat abatement plan three years after the existing one was declared a failure by a federal scientific committee.
Marine plastics are a major focus of the world’s most powerful industrial countries at the G7 summit this weekend in Canada as global concern mounts about the billions of tonnes being dumped into oceans every year.
By 2050 it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the world’s oceans.
Earlier this week on World Environment Day federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg admitted more needs to be done.
“Australians use more than 5.6 billion single-use plastic bags every year and plastic, more than 13 million tonnes of it, makes its way into our marine environment, causing great destruction,” he said.
“So we really can do better as a country, as a planet.”
Heidi Taylor, Managing director of Tangaroa Blue a leading charity that documents pollution, has just returned to the mainland from an annual marine debris clean-up on remote Christmas Island off Western Australia.
The waters around the island are awash with marine plastic pollution.
“It’s overwhelming because it keeps coming, you can do a cleanup and go back and two weeks later there’s another tonne on the beach,” she said.
“We think it should be classified as a hazardous material, it should be cleaned up immediately, restricted in its use and we should be way smarter in how we use a finite resource.”
Tangaroa Blue and Christmas Islanders collected plastics mostly from Indonesian sources but pollution from Australia is just as bad, and Ms Taylor is scathing of the federal government’s handling of the issue.
“We’ve been disappointed by the lack of any leadership on this issues,” she said.
“There’s been very little funding, it’s been very ad hoc, and because there’s no national policy it’s very hard for agencies and industry and communities to all link into something that they can contribute to.”
Failed plan still in operation
The federal government’s 2009 Threat Abatement Plan (TAP) for the Impacts of Marine Debris on Vertebrate Marine Life was declared a failure by the environment department’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee in 2015.
Benchmarks included a reduction of “the presence and extent of harmful marine debris in Australia’s marine environment” and “the number of marine vertebrates dying and being injured as a result of ingestion and/or entanglement in harmful marine debris”.
“Despite progress, particularly in cleanup efforts, it is not possible to state that these criteria have been met during the life of the plan,” the committee said in its report to the then environment minister Greg Hunt.
“As a result, this review concludes that the key threatening process injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris has not been abated and that the objectives of the threat abatement plan have not been met.”
Mr Hunt followed the committee’s recommendation and ordered a review of the plan.
Minister Frydenberg’s office referred SBS News inquiries to assistant minister Melissa Price, who in a statement said, “The revised plan is expected to be issued later this year. Until a new version is made the 2009 version remains current”.
“The Australian Government takes the problem of plastic waste and its impacts on the environment and wildlife seriously, and works with other governments to address ocean pollution,” the statement said.
“A number of actions announced at the recent MEM (Ministers of Environment Meeting) meeting will help reduce plastic pollution including a target of 100 per cent of Australian packaging being recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier (and) continuing to eliminate microbeads from cosmetic and personal care products, and examining options to broaden the phase-out to other products.”
Plastic and the G7
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has studied the impact of marine plastics across the country’s north from the Kimberly to the Great Barrier Reef.
“The projections for marine plastic pollution certainly are very worrying (and) in 2025 the projections are marine plastic will have increased ten-fold,” said Frederieck Kroon, AIMS principal research scientist.
“A Threat Abate Plan is an important step in co-ordinating marine plastic pollution right around Australia.”
“Globally there’s an increasing awareness, it’s a global issue, and different areas of the world are progressing in different ways.”
When G7 leaders meet in Canada this weekend, their host prime minister Justin Trudeau wants them to set a lead with an anti-plastics charter with ambitious goals for recycling and waste reduction.
The EU and UK already plan to ban some single-use plastics to cut the eight billion tonnes dumped in oceans annually that is now entering the food chain.
“Threat of marine plastics to human health is still a knowledge gap, humans are exposed to microplastics through a range of food items that we consume,” said Dr Kroon.
“Studies done that have detected microplasics in drinking water, table salt and seafood.”
A 2016 Senate inquiry into the marine plastic threat made 23 recommendations to the federal government but it has not yet finalised its response.