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The challenge

Plastic and other marine debris are a major environmental concern

Marine debris is a globally recognised environmental issue of increasing concern.

Dr. Denise Hardesty is a principal research scientist and team leader with CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere. Denise leads a portfolio of marine debris projects which has resulted in global recognition of Australia’s role in cutting-edge plastics pollution work of high value and impact.

Marine ecosystems worldwide are affected by human-made refuse, much of which is plastic.

Marine debris comes from both land and sea-based sources and can travel immense distances. It can pose a navigation hazard, smother coral reefs, transport invasive species and negatively affect tourism. It also injures and kills wildlife, has the potential to transport chemical contaminants, and may pose a threat to human health.

Plastic production rates are intensifying, and the volume of refuse humans release into marine systems is growing at an exponential rate. Litter impacts wildlife directly through entanglement and ingestion and indirectly through chemical affects. Even toothpaste and personal care products can have plastic microbeads in them. Plastics are mistakenly eaten by a range of marine species.

Our response

Building and sharing knowledge on marine debris impact

CSIRO has completed a survey of sites approximately every 100 km along the Australian coastline, representing large scale, integrated, rigorous data aimed at addressing the marine debris issue.

Parts of this research engaged with thousands of students, teachers and Shell employees and has reached millions of people, helping to educate them about, and increase their understanding of, the problems of marine debris.

Marine debris on a beach

The CSIRO Marine Debris Team are award-winning national and international leaders in efforts to understand and respond to this global marine challenge. Our engagements have included working alongside government and industry bodies around the world including the Australian Packaging Covenant, the International Whaling Commission, Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations.

Our research has shown that approximately three-quarters of the rubbish along the Australian coast is plastic. Most is from Australian sources, not from overseas, with debris concentrated near urban centres. In coastal and offshore waters, most floating debris is plastic. The density of plastic ranges from a few thousand pieces of plastic per square kilometre to more than 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.

Debris is more highly concentrated around major cities, suggesting local sources. Human deposition is the most important factor in determining how much debris can be found at a site. Water flow (e.g. storm water) and wind contribute to the transport of debris towards marine ecosystems.

Effect on marine wildlife populations

Around the world, nearly half of all seabird species are likely to ingest debris. Balloons are considered to be the biggest plastic killer of seabirds. Birds also eat everything from glow sticks, industrial plastic pellets, hard bits of plastic, foam, metal hooks and fishing line.

CSIRO researchers and colleagues found that 43 per cent of short-tailed shearwaters have plastic in their gut. Young birds were more likely to ingest debris and ate more pieces of debris than adult birds. A global hotspot for seabird impacts exists in the Tasman Sea south of Australia. CSIRO predicts that plastics ingestion in seabirds may reach 95 per cent of all species by 2050, taking into account the steady increase of plastics production.

For turtles, approximately one third of marine turtles globally have likely ingested debris, and this has increased since plastic production began in the 1950s. Most items eaten by turtles are plastic. Smaller oceanic turtles are more likely to ingest debris than coastal foragers; herbivores are more likely to ingest debris than carnivorous species; oceanic leatherback turtles and green turtles are at the greatest risk of ingested marine debris effects; and benthic turtles show a strong selectivity for soft, clear plastic that resembles natural prey such as jellyfish. Recent research has revealed that it takes just one piece of plastic to kill a turtle.

Seabirds, turtles, whales, dolphins, dugongs, fish, crabs and crocodiles and numerous other species are killed and maimed through entanglement. We estimate that between 5,000 and 15,000 turtles have been killed in the Gulf of Carpentaria after becoming ensnared by derelict fishing nets, mostly originating from overseas. For pinnipeds in Victoria, the majority of seal entanglements involved plastic twine or rope, and seals become entangled in green items more than in any other colour. In general, young seals are entangled in greater numbers than adults.

What you can do

Our research shows that people are the greatest contributor to marine pollution, meaning that to make a real difference we need to work together to contribute to solutions, plus help to improve our understanding of the types, amounts and sources of debris PDF (424 KB) that arrive on Australia's coastline. Visit the online national marine debris database.

[Music plays and an image appears of an aerial view of a stretch of coastline with a white sandy beach and then text appears: Marine Resources and Industries, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, How can we solve the ocean plastic crisis?]

[Image shows an aerial view of person picking up rubbish on a beach then camera zooms in to show the person picking up rubbish on a beach and then camera zooms in to show rubbish in her hand]

Dr Denise Hardesty: No matter where you are in the world, on the cleanest of beaches, in the city, the most remote area, you’re always going to find our trash. It’s everywhere that we go.

[Images move through to show Dr Denise Hardesty talking to camera, an aerial view of a stretch of coastline with a white sandy beach, and plastic bottles in dirty water and text appears: Dr Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Marine Debris]

And my career, my job now is really focussed on looking at the relationship between humans and our environment, particularly focussing on plastic pollution.

[Images move through of Denise talking to a class, Denise working with volunteers on a beach, men collecting samples from a boat, an underwater view of sample collection, and rubbish being analysed]

One of the big projects that we had was in 2011 to 2014 where we secured funding to do a national survey around the entire continent of Australia and we were looking at the sources, the amounts, the types of plastic pollution around the entire country.

[Images move through to show TJ Lawson talking to camera, TJ talking to students in a classroom, students walking on the beach, and Denise working with volunteers on beach and text appears: TJ Lawson, Spatial Analyst]

TJ Lawson: Another part of that project was to engage the community and with that we went and spoke to school kids. We had teachers come on expeditions and we spoke to some members of the public about the work.

[Images move through to show a close up view of students showing each other pollution samples collected, analysing rubbish, and a teacher working with students in a classroom]

Dr Denise Hardesty: By the end of the project we’d worked with over 7000 schoolkids as citizen scientists.

[Image changes to show Denise talking to the camera]

We analysed the data, we published a series of papers and that attracted a lot of attention from the media and from industry and Government partners who are interested in understanding their role in addressing the plastic pollution issue.

[Images move through to show a photo of Trish at a podium, and then Trish talking to camera]

Trish Hyde: In my time as CEO of the Australian Packaging Covenant we had a problem to address. How does a piece of packaging go from the land into the water and become pollution?

[Images move through of an Economic Resource map, a Log Debris Count map, and Trish talking to camera and text appears: Trish Hyde Managing Director, The Plastic Circle]

We partnered with the CSIRO and their research helped us build a strategic approach to address the problem.

[Images move through to show a white sandy beach, Denise on the beach talking to camera, and Kathy and a colleague taking and comparing measurements on a beach]

Dr Denise Hardesty: One of the really exciting opportunities in the work that I do, is the chance to mentor the next generation and Kathy Willis is one of the students that I’ve been lucky enough to work with.

[Images move through to show Kathy talking to camera, Kathy and a colleague taking and comparing measurements on a beach, and a highlighted map of local councils with survey sites and text appears: Kathy Willis PhD Candidate]

Kathy Willis: Building on work done by a student in 2013, I’m about to visit 40 local councils around Australia. At each of these councils we’re running beach transects to measure how much plastic pollution is on their beaches. We’re then going to interview the waste managers at each of those councils.

[Image changes to show a plastic pathway flow chart with different sections highlighted and then changes to show Kathy talking to the camera on the beach]

So, with this data we’ll be able to analyse and compare how waste management has changed from 2013 to now 2018.

[Images move through to show a screen scrolling through CSIRO’s Global plastic losses article, and then volunteers measuring pollution in various places including beaches, rivers and inland areas]

Dr Denise Hardesty: Our new global plastics project is focussing primarily in the South East Asia region at the moment and there we’re building capacity with on ground partners in the countries and we’re collecting data along rivers and inland areas along the coastline and out at sea.

[Image changes to show Denise talking to camera on the beach]

And with these country partners we’re developing a global baseline of plastic waste and leakage from land out into the ocean.

[Image changes to show volunteers’ written findings, and then changes to show TJ talking to camera, and then changes again to show a map of Total Count Model adjusted for sampling]

TJ Lawson: The volunteers are collecting the data for us and they’re now sending it back to us and my job is to assimilate all that data and pass it on to the other team members for analysis.

[Images move through to show Denise talking to the camera, and then changes to show people listening in a classroom]

Dr Denise Hardesty: This is some of the most exciting research I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. People care about this plastic pollution issue.

[Images move through of Denise working with a group of volunteers, Denise talking to camera, and then students collecting samples on a beach, and the camera zooms in on two of the students]

It’s something that resonates with people, whether it’s industry, Governments, private citizens. And the science that we’re carrying out is answering people’s questions on how we all together can help resolve the plastic pollution issue.
[Music plays and text appears on a blue screen: Interviewees, Dr Denise Hardesty, TJ Lawson, Trish Hyde, Kathy Willis.]

[Text appears: Additional Footage Supplied by, Earthwatch, Sandra McPherson, Trish Hyde.]

[Text appears: For more info debris.]

[CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO Australia’s innovation catalyst.]

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