The Age | Michael Green


Left to pick up the pieces

Plastic pollution in our waterways is getting worse fast. More and more citizens are cleaning beaches, but can we stop litter at the source?

NICKO Lunardi, from Newport, is wearing a black t-shirt with two skulls on it. He is 27 years old, an electrician, and a drummer in two punk bands. He’s also the leader of a small group of volunteer beach cleaners in Melbourne’s west.

It’s Sunday morning and a dozen people have slipped through a gap in the fence to the Jawbone Reserve in Williamstown, the closest marine sanctuary to the CBD. Parks Victoria’s website describes it as an “unspoilt place” and a “haven for coastal and marine life”. 

It is full of trash. Lunardi picks up a fistful of sandy debris, shot through with countless plastic chunks, lumps and specks. “What can we do with that?” he asks.

In the next hour, the group fills 16 large bags with plastic waste: wrappers, bottles, straws, lighters, labels, lollipop sticks, thongs. Plus rope, parking meter tickets, innumerable unknowable broken bits, half a dozen syringes and a tyre.

Lunardi had been in the habit of cleaning up litter by himself. “I felt weird telling people I picked up rubbish,” he says. “But then I realised: ‘No, I think they’re weird not picking up rubbish’.”

Laura, Nicko and Luke (foreground) from Scab Duty, cleaning the Jawbone Reserve, Williamstown 

So in June he started Scab Duty. The name comes from the slang for “yard duty” from his school days in Werribee. Now, every Sunday morning, a small group of volunteers spends one hour collecting refuse. And they like it – sort of.

It is Luke Fraser’s second week on Scab Duty. He’s sporting skinny black jeans and gumboots. “It makes me feel better afterwards,” he explains. “I didn’t realise how bad it is – I thought there were programs in place. I miss ignorance.”

Ignorance has just become much harder, for citizens, industry and policymakers alike: CSIRO has released the damning results of a three-year study of marine debris around Australia’s coastline and seas. Three-quarters of all the refuse is plastic, and almost all of that comes in small pieces. In Australian waters, it found up to 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.

The report states that “plastic production rates are intensifying” and “the volume of refuse humans release into marine systems is growing at an exponential rate”. Dr Denise Hardesty, the study’s lead author, says plastic has devastating effects on wildlife. She estimates that in the last few years, between 5,000 and 15,000 turtles have been ensnared in abandoned fishing nets in the Gulf of Carpentaria alone.

Nearly half of all seabirds have plastic in their guts; by mid-century it will be 95 per cent.

But some species fare worse already. For a decade, Dr Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist from University of Tasmania, has been studying the Flesh-footed Shearwater population on Lord Howe Island. They are deep-diving, large brown birds with a broad wingspan – and plummeting numbers.

Every Flesh-footed Shearwater in the Lord Howe Island population has ingested plastic, Lavers says.

“Plastic is absolutely and utterly everywhere. There is no even miniscule corner of the ocean that is not impacted by marine pollution right now. It’s been found from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” she says.

Many people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the floating refuse soup in the North Pacific Ocean. But there are actually five oceanic gyres – rotating ocean currents – which have come to trap our debris. One reaches close to the coast of Perth. In any case, oceans don’t need gyres to have a plastic problem. During their breeding season, Flesh-footed Shearwaters feed only in the Tasman Sea. “It is not unusual for a three-month old chick to contain more than 200 pieces of plastic,” Lavers says.

For the CSIRO research, which was funded by Shell, students and “citizen scientists” surveyed the beaches at Port Melbourne, St Kilda and Williamstown. As in other urban areas, they found more rubbish than where the coastline is clear. Above all, they found “cigarette butts, lots of cigarette butts”, Hardesty says.

EPA Victoria has modelled the way plastic circulates once it washes into the bay. From the rivermouth, it blows east and strikes the shore, often in the shelter of headlands. What doesn’t get beached will end up in Bass Strait within a year.

The consequences of all this plastic are two-fold. It can clog up some animals’ digestive systems, causing starvation or dehydration. But scientists have also discovered that plastic acts like a magnet for toxins in seawater. Contaminants concentrate on the plastic’s surface and are absorbed into the animals’ bloodstreams.

“It’s not just a problem of bottles on our beaches or plastic in our seabirds’ guts,” says Dr Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist from University of Tasmania. “Microplastics are infiltrating zooplankton and filter feeders like clams, mussels and sea cucumbers. These are creatures at the absolute base of the food chain. That has repercussions for every other level.”

Stony Creek Backwash, beneath the Westgate Bridge

After the clean up at Jawbone Reserve, Lunardi drives to Stony Creek Backwash, a small park beneath the Westgate Bridge. Parks Victoria describes it as a “Wetland Wonder” containing a rare stand of White Mangroves. It could add that the mangroves are surrounded by a wide and deep crust of extraordinary filth, in which grimy soft drink bottles and rusty spray cans comingle with a stained rainbow of degraded plastic scraps.

Most of this refuse has flowed from citizens’ hands onto the streets, into stormwater drains and then, the waterways. But some is industrial. Among the bottle tops and polystyrene, Lunardi draws my attention to thousands of “nurdles”. They are tiny plastic pebbles, 3 to 5 millimeters wide, the raw material for plastic manufacturing. In the Stony Creek Backwash, they seem to comprise a significant portion of the soil.

They’re a problem all around the world – and elsewhere in Melbourne too. At the same time, directly across the river, Neil Blake and volunteers from a group called ‘Port Melbourne Beach Patrol’ are conducting their own a “nurdle survey”.

Blake has been the Port Phillip “Baykeeper”, a volunteer position with the international Waterkeeper Alliance for the last six years. Each waterkeeper is a local advocate against the pollution their watershed, all in the name of swimmable, drinkable and fishable water worldwide. Blake has the long, snowy white beard of a storybook seaman. “Apparently the early waterkeepers were known as the greybeards, so I was in the running immediately,” he jokes.

He’s also the director of the Port Phillip Eco Centre, and the subject of ‘Baykeepers’, a recent documentary made by Michael J Lutman about plastic waste our waters. “The plastic age has really snuck up on us,” he says. “We haven’t been conscious of its proliferation and because it’s so cheap, we haven’t worried too much about where it goes.”

Since August 2013, he has been surveying the numbers of nurdles each week at various beaches – the most collected was over 5000 in an hour at St Kilda West, but he’s observed that numbers always spike at the high-tide line after heavy rain. Blake has also conducted several trawls of the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers. “There’s an ongoing influx of them from industrial sites,” he says. “Once they get out into the waterways, it’s economically impossible to remove them.”

He points at the foreshore, where a few volunteers are picking up nurdles up one-by-one. “We can collect a few thousand in an hour, but if we get that many, how many million must there be along this rock wall?”

Dr Randall Lee, senior marine scientist at EPA Victoria, says the nurdles are spilled in transit and onsite by manufacturers. “They’re so small that people tend to think they’re too hard to clean up,” he says. “It’s fairly well understood that the solution, particularly for nurdles, is not at the end point. It’s at the source.”

However, despite requests, the EPA could not provide any examples of investigations or penalties enforced for nurdle spills, or any work to improve industry practices. 

The EPA says Port Phillip Bay is “generally healthier and cleaner than comparable bays near large cities”. It monitors levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediment, but hasn’t conduced litter surveys since 2007. Until then, its results showed that rubbish on bay beaches had decreased slightly overall, but gotten worse at St Kilda and Port Melbourne.

While the possible sources of nurdle spills number in the hundreds, they’re few in comparison with the sources of discarded packaging – that is, everyone, everywhere.

Packaging itself is tied up with our economic system. Food manufacturers, for example, face a challenge: humans can only eat so much. To profit, companies must constantly market new processed products and whet appetites with their wrappings.

Last week, the Packaging Industry Council revealed the finalists in its 2014 packaging design awards. Among those shortlisted for the “sustainability” category is Barista Bros, an iced coffee produced by Coca-Cola Amatil. It has a shrink-sealed label that comes off easily, leaving a fully recyclable, clear PET bottle.

But is this kind of incremental change help or hindrance? The council’s CEO, Gavin Williams, says that over decades, packaging has diminished in one sense – it’s much more streamlined. To save money, businesses try to limit its cost and weight.

This innovation doesn’t always boost recycling rates, however. Lightweight plastic containers – soft films, pouches and shrink labels – are increasingly replacing glass, aluminium and steel. The latter group is more readily recyclable.

Williams contends that packaging trends are a symptom of demographic and social change. In the food industry, single-serve packs are on the rise. Smaller households want “ready-to-eat quantities that suit their purposes”, he says. Working parents want quick, microwavable meals. “Yes, there is more packaging,” Williams says, “but that’s not because the industry is inflicting it. The industry didn’t create those trends; it is responding to them.”

While the plastic in our waterways accumulates, however, our leaders dither. State and federal governments have completed a three-year consultation process to devise a national anti-litter policy. Ten models were considered, including a government-funded campaign, a voluntary industry scheme, a flat fee on all packaging manufacturers and a container deposit scheme (such as the popular 10 cent system in South Australia). 

In April, all state and federal environment ministers met to consider the options, but they deferred a decision. Five months later, there has been no progress. The final policy recommendations have not yet been made public.

The Victorian environment minister Ryan Smith says his government has funded a dozen new litter traps, more recycling bins and litter prevention officers at the EPA. It supports a national container deposit scheme, as does the state Labor party.

But a national scheme won’t happen, because the Queensland government opposes it.

Jeff Angel is the convenor of the Boomerang Alliance, a collection of environment groups campaigning for strong government regulations. “The vast majority of the community want this plastic pollution problem solved,” he says. “Consequently, they’re willing to support things like container deposits, banning lightweight plastic bags and the removal of plastic micro beads from soaps and shampoos.”

The industry favours a voluntary scheme administered through the Australian Packaging Covenant, which is signed by over 900 businesses. It has consistently campaigned against container deposit schemes. In early 2013, legal action by Coca-Cola Amatil put a temporary halt to the Northern Territory’s cash for containers program.

Several policy reviews have found that deposit schemes are among the most expensive anti-littering measures. Even so, the recent CSIRO research found strong evidence that South Australia’s scheme is effective. There, drink containers are three times less common in litter surveys than in other states.

The Victorian government spends about $80 million each year cleaning up rubbish. A large number of submissions to the federal policy process stated that industry should bear more of the burden for litter.

By that view, public money spent on packaging waste can be understood as a subsidy: companies profit from selling a convenient, single-use product, while taxpayers and marine life pick up the costs – if they’re picked up at all.

The Packaging Council argues that’s a mistaken view of the problem: while companies must do what they can, the balance of responsibility lies with individuals.

“What do you do about the person who goes out drinking beer on a Friday night and drops their bottle in the street?” Williams says. “I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say the company is responsible.

“Litter is a behavioural issue. In the long run, the only way you can change it is by consistent educational campaigns – not just for one or two years, but for a decade.”

Luke, from Scab Duty, cleaning up rubbish at Jawbone Reserve, Williamstown

On that Sunday morning, before they began the “nurdle survey”, the volunteers from Port Melbourne Beach Patrol cleaned up a 70-metre stretch of sandy riverfront on the Yarra. In an hour, they collected enough rubbish to fill twenty green shopping bags (polystyrene was particularly prominent).

Like Scab Duty, Beach Patrol is powered by concerned citizens. And much like the plastic problem, it has been growing exponentially. In 2009, the first group was founded in Middle Park. At the beginning of this year, there were five patrols at different bay beaches. By the years’ end there will be 14, stretching as far south as Chelsea. 

Terry Lobert, an IT project manager and the president of Beach Patrol, says volunteers come from all ages and backgrounds. Mostly they aren’t stereotypical greenies. “Plastic debris seems to worry everyone, which is good,” he says. Lobert co-founded the St Kilda chapter, where about three-dozen volunteers show up on the second Saturday of every month.

Beach Patrol is tallying its results for the year so far, in volunteer hours (over 1200) shopping bags of rubbish (over 900) and kilograms collected (nearly 3500).

“We’re collecting all this data to drive for change,” Lobert says. “Governments at all three levels could do lots of things that would solve the problem quite dramatically.”

He plumps for several policies: cash for containers, direct bans on plastic bags, straws and other single-use items, and more litter traps on stormwater drains, as well as public education campaigns. There’s no time to waste.

“In my ideal world there are no Beach Patrols because they’re not needed,” he says. “I don’t want to be doing this forever.”

Read an edited version of this article at The Age online

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