Plastic pollution along Australia’s beaches and coastline has decreased by 29 percent, according to new CSIRO research exploring the most effective ways to reduce it.
The researchers behind the study said such a big improvement in just a few years was “pretty amazing.”
“It’s really a positive surprise,” Dr. Denise Hardesty, a marine debris expert at the CSIRO, told news gear.
“We hear so much and know how much more plastic is produced each year, so to see and document a change of almost 30 percent in such a short time is heartwarming.
“It’s pretty amazing and speaks quite well about Australia regarding listening engagement and infrastructure.”
What has changed?
The new report builds on a large-scale survey of Australia’s coastline in 2013, where researchers circumnavigated the continent to inspect beaches and other coastal areas in 100km increments.
In 2019, they analyzed 31 municipalities where significant changes occurred using a targeted approach.
It took another three years to process and publish the results.
“Our research aimed to identify the local government approaches that have been most effective in reducing coastal plastics and identifying the underlying behaviors that can lead to the greatest reductions in plastic pollution,” said lead researcher Dr. Kathryn Willis.
“We were surprised and excited to find that there was an average of 29 percent less plastic on our beaches than in 2013 when similar studies were conducted.”
Part of Dr. Kathryn Willis’s research involved physically examining beaches for litter around Australia. Photo: Delivered
The researchers also spoke with municipalities to determine what worked and what didn’t when reducing coastal litter.
Among the most effective measures were economic incentives such as cash for returned bottles, roadside collection of recyclable waste, and higher landfill charges that forced people to reconsider their disposal.
Education and awareness, as well as monitoring illegal dumping, played a smaller role in reducing waste.
“We’re actually seeing where we’ve increased the waste taxes, so if you go to the tip that costs you more, that means people start to think more about where and how they’re throwing their waste,” said Dr. Hardesty.
“And so I think that fits into that broader thinking more than just, you know, ‘Forget the straw, save a turtle’.”
Dr. Hardesty added, “If you only invest in outreach, education, and community awareness, you won’t find the same decline in plastic.”
the bigger picture
The 29 percent reduction in a plastic litter is a national average.
The researchers noted that up to 73 percent reductions were observed in some areas.
CSIRO chief executive Dr. Larry Marshall touted the local efforts nationwide as a “Team Australia” effort.
But the researchers also found some municipalities where plastic pollution had increased.
Plastic pollution rose by a staggering 91 percent in one area, but the researchers chose not to name the municipality and put it to shame.
They were more interested in what works – financial incentives to avoid littering or not using plastic–to continue reducing litter in the future.
Such a drastic improvement in a short time will likely benefit seagulls, fish, coral, and other marine life.
“People always ask me, ‘Oh my gosh, is it so depressing that you’re working on plastic and it’s just everywhere and growing?'” said Dr. Hardesty.
“And I tell them, ‘Actually, it’s also a story of hope and optimism.”