Plastic – the human weapon killing our oceans

By Elise Van Dorssen, Morgan McSmith & Poppy Solomon

Australia’s use of plastic is constantly increasing and creating devastating issues for its oceans.

It is predicted by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, but the Queensland Government has plans to reduce plastic production.

From July 1, Queensland will be introducing a plastic bag ban in the hope of reducing litter and the constant overuse of plastic.

 

Marine mammals sometimes mistake plastic for food. Photo: Turtles in Trouble, Facebook

Ocean Crusaders found there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. On the surface floats 269,000 tonnes, while 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometre litter the deep sea.

Maroochy Waterwatch CEO Cerran Fawns says their volunteers collect over 100m2 of litter each week from Sunshine Coast waterways.

“Plastic bags are probably one of the most popular things that we get out of the water,” she says.  

“The current push to ban single-use plastic grocery bags in Queensland is an important step in cleaning up our environment and saving countless animals.” 

The ban will stop all retailers from supplying single-use plastic bags, fining up to $6300 to any offenders.  

Plastic bags only account for a small amount of our waste, and there is much more to be done before our oceans and the animals living in them will be safe.

The Sunshine Coast is home to many environmental groups struggling against the use of plastic. The Circular Experiment on Ocean Street works to promote reducing, reusing and recycling. 

Co-founder Jaine Morris says if plastic use is not limited, there will be a catastrophic effect. 

“Sometimes you can’t un-see things, like the image of the turtle with a straw up its nose,” she says.  

“It’s a brilliant product because it’s cheap, but if we continue our use of plastic unabridged our oceans will die. 

“What does an ocean look like without fish? It’s quite horrifying.” 

In 1860, the first plastics were invented, and have become commonly used around the world over the last 30 years.

Nowadays, the world is producing over 80 million tonnes of plastic each year.

Clean up Australia estimates Australia contributes to 1.3 million tonnes of the world’s plastics.

Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) campaigner Jimmy Cordwell says more plastic is created each year compared to the year before.

“In the last 10 years, there’s been more plastic bags than since plastic was invented,” he says.

 

Washed up plastic rubbish on the beach at Mudjimba. Photo by Poppy Solomon

 

PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) Australia media officer Emma Hurts says the current push to ban single-use plastic bags in Queensland is an important step in cleaning up the environment.

“Plastic bags often end up in our oceans, where they can remain for years killing birds, sea turtles, dolphins, and other marine animals,” she says.  

Plastic bags are everywhere, with an estimate of 6.9 billion used every year in Australia. That is 18.9 million new plastic bags used daily.

Ocean Crusaders plastics statistics show if you collected all the plastic bags used in Australia for a year and tied them end to end, you could wrap them around the world 42.5 times. If each household used one less plastic bag a week, it would save 253 million bags a year.

The most common plastic bags are polyethylene, which come in high and low-density grades. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bags are the single-use lightweight plastic bags commonly used at supermarkets and used by 80 per cent of retailers in Queensland. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) bags are the thicker plastic for luxury goods, which are used by 20 per cent of retailers in Queensland.

Queensland alone uses approximately 900 million single-use lightweight plastic bags, but this is soon to change when the state introduces its plastic bag ban. Once this occurs, New South Wales will be the only Australian state or territory to not have a ban in place.

However, this is not a total plastic ban. The ‘Plastic Bag Ban’ legislation will only ban single-use lightweight plastic shopping bags across Queensland. LDPE bags will still be available to purchase at a low cost. 

White’s IGA Group co-owner Roz White says she purchases 5,720,000 lightweight plastic shopping bags each year for her four stores on the Sunshine Coast.

“It’s quite mind blowing, it’s extraordinary how many bags it [the plastic bag ban] is saving,” she says.

White has taken the initiative to start the transition early by banning the supply of plastic shopping bags for purchases under five items at her Peregian Beach store, when it opened in September 2016.

“It’s probably been a more easier and positive transition than I anticipated,” she says. “Maybe it’s because of the beautiful environment here on the Sunshine Coast, so people are interested in the environment and the marine life and they know how important this is.”  

Clean Up Australia suggests the average lifespan of a single-use plastic bag is as little as 12 minutes. The average humpback whale’s lifespan is about 50 years, while the flatback sea turtle can potentially live up to 100 years old. But, over 100 million marine animals are killed annually as a result of plastic debris in the ocean. A 12-minute lifespan of a piece of plastic can subtract years off lives. 

While some studies suggest animals eat plastic due to it simply looking like food, National Geographic proposes some plastics smell like food. The same algae consumed by krill often thrives on plastic debris in the Ocean. As seabirds hunt for krill, they’ve learned to search for the sulphur odour they give off, often consuming plastic instead.

Regardless of the reason behind consuming the plastic, 90 per cent of all seabird species have ingested plastic debris.  

Cordwell says the AMCS finds turtles quite often come into contact with plastic. 

“There was a study done in Moreton Bay a few years back and they found plastic in over 3,600 turtles,” he says.  

“One of the reasons is your typical plastic bag, to a turtle, resembles a jellyfish.” 

Additionally, one plastic bag can kill numerous animals. As one body ingests the plastic, potentially taking the life of the animal, the body begins to decompose while the plastic remains and will be released back into the open ocean with the chance of claiming another marine victim.

Every year, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean, which is equivalent to 3,200 kilometres of trucks each loaded with rubbish. At least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion and scientists have identified 200 “dead zones” where no life organisms can now grow.  

The Queensland Government estimates 16 million plastic shopping bags end up in the environment each year. This is about the same weight of 48 baby blue whales.  

Plastic use not only affects marine life, but also has negative impacts on society.  

After plastics have “broken down”, they do not disappear. They become harmful microplastics, which are even easier to consume.  

Ocean Street Soft Plastics Recycle Initiative founder Rosemary Dittmar says even when plastic breaks down, microplastics will always exist. 

“It’s finding its way into our waterways, it’s finding its way into sea salt,” she says.

“Not only are these microplastics in our ocean, we’re consuming them as well. It’s not an issue on an ocean level, but an issue on a personal level as well.”  

However, this isn’t the only issue to humans.  

Currently, tourism brings in $12.6 billion to Queensland’s economy, and employs 9.5 per cent of Aussies.  

With no marine life, and an ocean filled with litter, Queensland’s beaches will quickly begin to look more like landfills than shorelines.  

Cordwell and the AMCA work with Clean Up Australia day to collect data, and he says Sunshine Coast businesses should be praised for having a target to eradicate plastic. Many of these organisations help each other to work towards a better future.  

“Noosa is actually leading the way on that,” he says. “There are over 50 groups focusing on plastic pollution and mitigating plastic pollution around the country.  

“It’s encouraging to see a community approach, and that’s the beauty of it. We’ve got businesses all working together, they know that they’re all in it, and if they come up against something that’s difficult, they can work through that as a community.”

Eight simple ways to reduce plastic

By Morgan McSmith

Over the past 50 years plastic production has snowballed from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014. With continuous production and the convenience of plastic it’s often hard to find ways to reduce the amount we use. Here are eight ways individuals can reduce plastic use in everyday life:

Purchase a reusable cup/water bottle

While most plastic water bottles are recyclable, many end up in landfill, taking up to 1,000 years to break down. When they’re littered they tend to end up in the sea, breaking up into microplastics. Use a reusable cup and fill it through the tap or a filtered water system. If you do drink from a plastic water bottle take advantage of the container refund scheme starting 1 November 2018 by recycling them. Furthermore, take a reusable mug to your local cafe or coffee shop for your morning coffee.

Say no to plastic straws

In America alone, an estimated 500 million plastic straws are used every day. If you were to connect all those straws together it would be enough to cover the circumference of the Earth two and a half times. A local Sunshine Coast company, The Ethical Straw Co., has come up with a great alternative: stainless steel straws, making it possible to wash and reuse them.

Check your beauty products

The microbeads in many beauty products have been designed to be able to go down drains and sinks, leading directly into lakes, rivers and eventually oceans. Check the labels on the products you buy to ensure you’re not rinsing tiny plastics down the shower drain.

Use an eco-friendly toothbrush

Aussies alone use and dispose over 30 million toothbrushes a year, amounting to about 1,000 tonnes of landfill. The Environmental Toothbrush is an easy, eco-friendly solution made of bamboo to reduce the use of plastic.

Have a plastic free period

On average, a woman contributes 11,000 tampons over her lifetime to the world’s waste. Consequently, every year over 12 billion pads and tampons are used once and disposed of. There are tonnes of ways to reduce this: washable pads, menstrual cups, period panties and natural disposables are all great ways to have a plastic-free period.

Buy in bulk and store food in jars

In the United States containers and packaging alone contribute to over 23 per cent of the material reaching the landfills. Additionally, packaging makes up a majority of the plastic that ends up in our waterways and beaches. Rice, pastas, beans, lentils, oils, honey, etc., are all easy food items that can be bought through local bulk food supplies and stored in jars, reducing the amount of single-use plastic packaging.

Switch to eco-friendly bin bags

Recycling and composting everything you can will help keep down the amount of rubbish going into the bin. Not using a bin liner can work for some people, however you’ll need to wash your bins regularly to prevent odour and vermin. Finding something to line the bin with can be tricky. Biodegradable bin bags are a great way to reduce plastic use in your home. Another easy alternative is an old newspaper, creating a simple liner.

Bring reusable bags shopping

Plastic bags make about 10 per cent of washed-up debris that pollute the coastlines. When the plastic bag ban is put into action on 1 July retailers will no longer be able to supply single-use plastic bags. As a result, not only will using a reusable bag save you money, it will also reduce the amount of pollution going into the environment.

Ocean Street leads a plastic-free Coast

By Poppy Solomon

Ocean Street is one of the Sunshine Coast’s most popular spots for eating, drinking and partying, but this hospitality hotspot has a huge responsibility to the environment. Due to the hard work of several not-for-profit groups and willing businesses, it is also a leading area for the reduction of plastic use.

Ocean St Soft Plastics Recycle Initiative founder Rosemary Dittmar says all of the plastic currently thrown away goes straight to landfill, where it remains forever.

“Once I became more attentive… I started realising how much plastic I actually use in my own workplace,” she says.

“So, I jumped on the internet and found the RedCycle program, which is set up at Coles and Woolworths. I figured this was a great idea and wanted to take initiative.

“It really just brought my attention to how overwhelming the plastic problem is, and how it hasn’t really been discussed until recently.”

Dittmar recently closed the Soft Plastics Recycle Initiative, due to being overwhelmed by the issue.

“It took a toll on my mental health, honestly,” she says.

“Week after week, every Wednesday, I’d be collecting about 4–5 big garbage bags worth of plastic.

“While it’s great for me to be able to ensure that it would be getting recycled, I felt very isolated in the movement.

“I realised that as much as my individual work was doing something good, the public can’t just rely on individuals like myself or independently owned companies.

Dittmar started collecting the soft-plastic waste each week and took it to RedCycle, where it was recycled into playground equipment, outdoor seating, and other building materials. She began the initiative at her own workplace, Solbar, and over time more Ocean Street businesses joined the cause. Soon, Ocean St was significantly cutting down on waste.

“You can collect your soft plastics yourself and put them in a RedCycle bin,” she says. “If you actually hop onto their website, you can see which stores are participating.”

However, Dittmar says RedCycle can only keep up with a certain amount of demand.

“If everyone around the nation was all sending their soft plastics to this one RedCycle facility, they can’t keep up,” she says.

“So, we need to think of other ways to limit use and also get the government’s attention, so we can make this a bigger scheme.”

“This needs to be brought up with local and federal government so it can be nationwide.”

The Circular Experiment is a current Ocean Street initiative, which urges businesses to convert from a “linear” to “circular” economy. The organisation was founded in 2017 by sisters Jaine and Ashleigh Morris, who quit their jobs to fight for sustainability.

Jaine Morris says The Circular Experiment works to drive economic growth, while reducing the environmental footprint. She says businesses extract important resources from the Earth and use them to make something of low value, which is a huge waste.

“We use that product once or twice, then chuck it in a hole in landfill,” she says.

“It’s a completely straight line. There’s no renewal or regeneration in that system.

“In a circular economy, you don’t extract materials that you don’t need, and so avoid the use of finite resources. Then, if you do need to use them, you keep the materials circulating within the system.”

According to The Circular Experiment’s website, Ocean Street produces 10 tonnes of waste every week, with 35 per cent food and organics, 35 per cent recyclables, and 30 per cent soft plastics.

Morris says the street is a visible tourist destination, which has drains leading into the Maroochy River, and eventually the ocean.

“It’s important to be seen as environmentally responsible and also economically sound,” she says.

“We wanted the businesses to be the leaders in the transition away from single-use plastics.

“My hope is that people will begin to become aware.”

Morris says if plastic use is not limited, there will be a catastrophic ripple effect.

“It’s a brilliant product because it’s cheap, but if we continue our use of plastic unabridged our oceans will die,” she says.

“It sounds so dramatic, but it’s serious. It’s a massive cascade of problems.”

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