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Published: 22 September 2014

The oceans are full of our plastic – here's what we can do about it

Britta Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox

By 2050, 95 per cent of seabirds will have plastic in their gut. That is just one finding from our national marine debris research project, the largest sample of marine debris data ever collected anywhere in the world.

One aim of our research is to help authorities and others reduce marine debris’ impact on wildlife.
One aim of our research is to help authorities and others reduce marine debris’ impact on wildlife.
Credit: CSIRO

The statistic is just one prediction of what’s in store if we don’t come to grips with the growing problem of rubbish at sea.

The issue of marine debris was recently brought to the world’s attention by the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which was reportedly hampered by objects that look similar to aircraft remains.

When you consider that six million tonnes of fishing gear is lost in the oceans each yea – yet derelict fishing gear doesn’t even crack the top ten most common items found during coastal clean-ups – you begin to grasp the scale of the problem.

Plastic not so fantastic

The Australian government has a ‘threat abatement plan’ which aims to save marine animals from being harmed by rubbish. We set out to inform this plan by developing a better understanding of where exactly this rubbish comes from and how exactly it harms wildlife.

We surveyed the entire Australian coast at 100 km intervals, with help from school groups and citizen scientists. We found that our shorelines are littered with debris. About three-quarters of it is plastic and, although there are some large items, 95 per cent of the items are just a few centimetres across, or smaller.

In Australian waters, you can expect to find anything from a few thousand to more than 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.

Marine debris is concentrated around towns and cities.
Marine debris is concentrated around towns and cities.
Credit: CSIRO

Our rubbish can travel huge distances, leaving behind a trail of destruction. We found that almost half (43 per cent) of seabirds have plastic in their gut, with young birds being particularly susceptible. If the increasing trend of plastic production increases and no effort is made to curb the amount that finds its way into the oceans, then by 2050 nearly every seabird (95 per cent) will have ingested some plastic.

Globally, about one-third of marine turtles are estimated to have ingested debris, and this figure has steadily increased since plastic production began in the 1950s.

Many turtles are killed and maimed by abandoned fishing nets each year, along with other species including whales, dolphins, dugongs, fish, crabs and crocodiles. In the past few years, we estimate that between 5000 and 15,000 turtles have been ensnared by these ‘ghost nets’ in the Gulf of Carpentaria alone.

Parts of Australia’s coastline are littered with plastic rubbish, which finds its way into the oceans.
Parts of Australia’s coastline are littered with plastic rubbish, which finds its way into the oceans.
Credit: CSIRO

Reining in our rubbish

Ocean trash is so dispersed that it is not practical to collect it at sea. It might sound obvious, but the most effective way to reduce the harmful effects of sea debris is to prevent it from getting there in the first place. Our research shows that the vast majority of this rubbish comes from the land, with large concentrations near our cities, rather than from litter dropped at sea.

Tackling the problem will mean getting people to change their ways. Here are three ways we can do it: education, rewards, and punishment.


As part of this project we engaged directly with nearly 6000 students, teachers and members of the public, as well as reaching more than two million Australians and a wide international audience, all with the aim of changing attitudes towards ocean health.

We also focused on building foundations for the next generation of marine researchers through a mentoring program in which eight international and four Australian students participated intensively in the project.

Additionally we developed an online national marine debris database which allows members of the public to contribute data about litter they find at their local beach. We also engaged with existing initiatives such as Clean Up Australia, Tangaroa Blue, the Surfrider Foundation and other groups that are cleaning up Australia’s beaches.

Together, all of these organisations and citizen scientists contribute to the improved understanding of the types, amounts and sources of debris we find on Australia’s coastline.

Meanwhile, we have tackled the specific issue of derelict fishing gear in the Gulf of Carpentaria – most of which comes from overseas sources – by identifying a ‘pinch point’ in the gulf near the port of Weipa where ghost nets can be collected relatively easily and cheaply, before they reach high-density turtle areas.

The carrot...

Economists often emphasise the important role of incentives in modifying behaviour. South Australia’s container deposit legislation has helped to reduce the number of plastic drinks containers entering the environment by a factor of three, suggesting that incentive schemes can positively impact on levels of waste.

...and the stick

Regulation can be effective, but it needs to be targeted to have the best chance of success.

Using our coastal survey data and interviews with more than 40 coastal councils around Australia, we found evidence for two main drivers behind marine debris: general public behaviour and illegal dumping of refuse.

Similarly, we found that local council outreach, which presumably affects user behaviour, and anti-dumping campaigns were both effective in reducing the debris found in coastal areas.

Making a difference

Littering isn’t the only cause of the problem. Even toothpaste and personal care products can have plastic microbeads in them which end up in the marine environment and are mistakenly eaten by a range of species. Awareness is a major issue here, but there are guides being developed to help consumers make informed choices about the products they use.

Working together, scientists, industry partners, coastal managers and citizen scientists can make significant strides to reduce sea debris impacts in coastal areas and in the marine environment.

Ultimately, however, the throwaway culture ingrained in our society needs to change if we are to tip the scales back in favour of the wildlife in our oceans.

Britta Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox are researchers with CSIRO. Their research has been co-funded by Shell Australia’s National Social Investment Program and CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship. TeachWild is a national partnership between CSIRO, Earthwatch and Shell Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Published: 4 July 2011

Assured sustainability reporting – navigating obligations

Nick Fleming

As the way in which organisations address environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues comes under increasing scrutiny, sustainability reporting is gathering importance and momentum. Yet reporting must be seen as a product of sustainable business practices, not the focus of it.

Emphasis on more robust sustainability reporting is helping to drive the wider assessment and reform of companies’ associated supply chains and logistics infrastructure.
Emphasis on more robust sustainability reporting is helping to drive the wider assessment and reform of companies’ associated supply chains and logistics infrastructure.
Credit: iStockphoto

While sustainability reporting is new territory for some organisations, many leading businesses have been engaged in reporting for over a decade. Indeed, sustainability reporting is typically one of the first vehicles for engagement with the topic and issues of sustainability, often at the encouragement of a few passionate staff.

However, the call for greater organisational accountability and transparency is growing. An increasing number of shareholder resolutions are placing pressure on company boards to ensure they are effectively identifying, disclosing and addressing ESG risks. Institutional investors are already using ESG data to differentiate firms and guide investment decisions.1

Powerful customers are also forcing their suppliers to become more transparent. The classic example is Walmart, which launched a supplier sustainability initiative in July 2009. Locally, Woolworths recently announced its own Sustainable Fish Sourcing Strategy.2

There is also an expectation for assurance. This reflects a stakeholder desire for reports to be relevant, reliable and free from bias, while the reporting organisation wishes to build a case for lower costs for finance and insurance. This all takes time and money; reporting can be a costly exercise and carries risks.

The banking sector provides an insight to the challenges posed by sustainability reporting. In Australia, banks have typically lead sustainability reporting and have performed well against international benchmarks such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Yet this year, the big four banks have been publically criticised over their involvement with coal-fired power stations.3 People ask how an organisation that receives sustainability accolades can also finance environmental pollution. This questions the connectivity between sustainability reporting and governance.

Scrutiny is also being applied by the regulators. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has prosecuted cases against companies such as GM Holden and Prime Carbon for overstating their ‘green’ credentials. It’s clear that inaccurate communication on ESG matters presents serious risks to an organisation’s reputation – and that of the rating or assurance agency.

These issues have been behind recent reviews of reporting guidelines and benchmarking methods.4,5 The reviews found that ratings and reporting tend to be backward-looking measures of compliance with ‘good practice’, failing to enable a meaningful assessment of an organisation’s ability to create and sustain value, in the short and longer term.

What’s lacking is adequate interrogation and reporting of the strategic capabilities and the core competencies required to underpin business continuity and delivery of sustainable outcomes; that is, a truly sustainable enterprise.

However, the push for integrated financial and non-financial (sustainability) reporting may offer a silver lining – the trigger to focus conversations among executives and boards about the things that will drive genuine business continuity, profitability and sustainability. Without these conversations, there will neither be the understanding, focus nor commitment to cultivate truly sustainable enterprises.

The adage ‘What gets measured gets managed’ remains true; as does ‘It’s what you do, not what you say, that counts’. Reporting without subsequent actions to manage risks and create value is meaningless, and arguably harmful.

While there are growing market and stakeholder pressures for integrated reporting of financial and ESG matters, reporting should only be entered into with an eye on:

  1. material business risks

  2. core competencies for organisational continuity

  3. a core set of meaningful performance measures that offer real insight

  4. integrating reporting into governance

  5. commitment to real action in response to identified risks and opportunities.

Organisations that assume this approach take sustainability reporting beyond a ‘nice?to?have’ PR exercise to a ‘must?have’ business improvement tool. It’s a factor in the superior financial performance demonstrated by ethical and sustainable organisations. Getting it right is good for business – and good for communities.

Dr Nick Fleming is Chief Sustainability Officer Sinclair Knight Merz, leading the application of sustainability thinking in business operations and client services. Through his Sustainable Enterprise column, Nick provides insight to how businesses and organisations are effectively putting sustainability theory into practice.

1 Ernst & Young (2011). Shareholders press boards on social and environmental risks.
3 Greenpeace (2011). Pillars of pollution.
4 Eccles RG, Cheng B, Saltzman D (Eds) (2010). The landscape of integrated reporting: reflections and next steps. Harvard Business School.
5 SustainAbility (2011). Rate the raters: uncovering best practices.

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