Plastic pollution threat 'on par to global warming'


Seabirds are dying at an alarming rate from plastic in our oceans, while the pollution problem flies under the radar, a Senate inquiry has been told.

A seabird common to Australia is being killed by marine plastic pollution at the alarming rate of one in 10, a Senate inquiry has been told.

A study found 11 per cent of young flesh-footed shearwater birds - common visitors to Australian coasts - were dying from ingesting plastic or from plastic chemical contamination, the inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution heard.

"This would be happening in other species as well," the study's author, marine biologist Dr Jennifer Lavers, told a public hearing in Sydney on Thursday.

The inquiry, called for by Tasmanian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, is investigating the impacts of marine plastic pollution on animals and ecosystems, fisheries, small business and human health.

Dr Lavers' research partner Ian Hutton said one bird was found with 274 pieces of plastic in its stomach - 14 per cent of its body weight.

"That's the equivalent of a human carrying a pillowcase full of plastic in his stomach," he said.

Dr Lavers said although the scale of the marine pollution problem was on par with major challenges such as global warming and sea level rise, research was chronically underfunded.

"This is a very, very significant, ubiquitous threat that is rapidly increasing in pace, showing absolutely no signs of stopping," she said.

"Our understanding of the complex issues, including things like chemical pollution, is so incredibly poor, we're really just starting at the basic level."

Clean Up Australia executive chairman Ian Kiernan called for governments to introduce container refund schemes like the one used in South Australia.

He also suggested plastic bottle caps and lids be permanently attached to their containers to cut down on waste entering waterways.

"(Plastic) is a fantastic product ... but it is a horrific waste material," he said.

"It is so durable, it is so cumulative.

"We have got to change our behaviour to address these problems."

Representatives from Oceanwatch and the Surfrider Foundation Australia are due to appear at the inquiry on Thursday afternoon.

A public hearing has been scheduled in Canberra next Friday, and another in Brisbane on March 10.

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