Plastic Matters, With Dr. Q
by Qamar Schuyler
Have you ever heard of the Great Pacific Gyre, aka the Great Pacific garbage patch? These days, chances are you have. You may have also watched YouTube videos of turtles with plastic straws up their noses, or albatross carcasses laden with plastic.
When you go to the grocery store, you have to pay a small fee for a new bag if you forget your reusable one. In some states, though not yet Tasmania, you also have the opportunity to recoup those costs by returning your plastic Coke bottles for a deposit. Whether you realise it or not, all of these things are connected. And it is my job to make the connections.
I am a Research Scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), here in Hobart. I study plastic pollution; where it comes from, where it goes to, and what impacts it has. I ask questions like “Does the average income of a local population affect the amount of litter on the ground?” or “Is there more plastic in commercial areas than in parks or beaches?” I study how wind and water move plastic through our environment and ultimately to the sea. I evaluate the effectiveness of laws and regulations aimed at stopping plastic on its way to our oceans. And once that plastic has made it to the ocean, I look at how it affects wildlife like turtles and seabirds.
So what have we found? Well, you may have seen some of our recent work in the news. We reported that when turtles eat 14 pieces of plastic, they have a 50% risk of dying from that plastic. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that about half of all turtlesworldwide are estimated to have eaten debris!
Fortunately, the news is not all bad. By analysing data from Keep Australia Beautiful, we showed that container deposit laws (CDL), already enacted in five Australian states (SA, NT, NSW, ACT, QLD), and soon WA (2019), have a real environmental benefit. These regulations mean that a consumer receives 10 cents for every beverage container returned. That keeps cans and bottles out of the waste stream, and off our coasts. States with a CDL had a lot fewer beverage containers along their coastlines than states without such laws. So the good news is, although current estimates put the amount of plastic entering the world’s oceans annually at about 8 million tonnes (!), there are lots of promising solutions already being enacted.
Ultimately, plastic is not just a problem for wildlife, it’s a problem for all of us. 25% of the fish sold in a San Francisco fish market had plastic in their digestive systems. We know that chemicals in plastics can transfer into the tissues of animals that eat them, though it’s unknown whether this will ultimately result in harm to humans. Small amounts of water caught by discarded plastic bags provide breeding spaces for mosquitos, potentially carrying diseases such as Zika virus. Beaches and parks littered with debris cost communities through lost tourism revenue as well as increased cleaning expenses.
As dire as it sounds, there are specific, hands-on actions that each one of us can take, ranging from cutting back on single use plastics (e.g. straws, bags, coffee cups) to influencing manufacturers through our purchasing power. But most important of all, stay engaged and keep putting pressure on politicians to act in the best interests of our environment! ■