NCWQ Environment Report: February 2018

By Pat Pepper, NCWQ Environment Adviser

(photo credit:


The Productivity Commission raised the possibility that Adani’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) loan bid may fail the loan criteria. However the Queensland Government has vetoed the loan to fulfil an election promise. Aurizon, the nation’s largest rail freight operator, has requested a NAIF loan to build a freight link, opening the region up to coal projects, and ultimately helping facilitate the Carmichael mine. It is unclear if the Queensland Government’s veto covers this bid. However, Aurizon has withdrawn its NAIF application as it is unlikely to secure enough customer contracts to go ahead in the near future.


Jambeck et al calculated that 275 million metric tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 192 countries bordering the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean and Black Seas in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tonnes entering the ocean. Jambeck J. R., Geyer R., Wilcox C., Siegler T. R., Perryman M., Andrady A., Narayan R. and K. L. Law 2015, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347, 768–771. doi:10.1126/science.1260352pmid:25678662 . Plastic debris and microplastics is transported by ocean currents across borders and can have serious environmental, social and economic consequences, harming wildlife, safety of sea transport, fisheries, tourism, recreation and threatening marine ecosystems. UNEP (2016). Marine plastic debris and microplastics – Global lessons and research to inspire action and guide policy change. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.

Henderson Island in middle of South Pacific Gyre –
At least 690 species have encountered marine debris and at least 17% of those listed on the IUCN Red List as near threatened or above. Of the individual encounters 92% were related to encounters with plastic and at least 10% had ingested microplastics..Gall S.C and R.C.Thompson (2015) The impact of debris on marine life. Marine Pollution Bulletin 92, 170-179 Many of these environmental impacts of marine debris especially from microplastics and nanoplastics have been covered in previous reports. Supporting Information from NCWQ Environment Adviser, P.M. Pepper B.Sc. M.Sc. Ph.D. and NCWQ Nutrition Adviser & NCWQ Consumer Affairs Adviser Mrs Val Cocksedge OAM, DipHSc; NCWQ Environment Adviser’s Reports, March 2017, November 2015);

Risk to coral health from plastic debris: Assessing the influence of plastic waste on disease risk in 124,000 reef-building corals from 159 reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, Lamb et al estimated the likelihood of disease increases from 4% to 89% when corals are in contact with plastic. Three key diseases associated with rapid coral mortality increased markedly. Skeletal eroding band disease which can be caused by plastic debris opening wounds in coral tissue to let in pathogens, increased from 1.2 ± 0.1% to 43.9 ± 5.1%. White syndromes which can be caused by a pathogen colonising polypropylene which is used to make bottle caps and toothbrushes, increased from 1.9 ± 0.2% to 19.0 ± 4.0%. Black band disease which can result from plastic debris blocking out light and creating low oxygen conditions that favour the growth of microorganisms, increased from 0.6 ± 0.1% to 14.7 ± 3.9%. Structurally complex corals, particularly branching and tabular species are eight times more likely to be affected by plastic. This could seriously affect the numerous marine species that shelter under or within these corals, and in turn the fisheries that depend on them. The number of plastic items observed on each reef varied markedly among countries, from maxima in Indonesia [25.6 items per 100 ± 12.2 m] to minima in Australia (0.4 items per 100 ± 0.3 m2) Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs Lamb J.B., Willis B.L., Fiorenza E.A., Couch C.S., Howard R., Rader D. N., True J.D. Kelly L.A., Ahmad A., Jompa J. and C. D. Harvell (2018) Science Vol. 359, Issue 6374, pp. 460-462;; While Australia has a relatively low level of plastic entanglement on its reefs and this is not expected to increase at the alarming rate of the reefs off other countries, there is no excuse for complacency when Australia is custodian is one of greatest natural wonders in the world.

Land-based sources of the debris in the marine environment: Nearly half of the estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic that flow into the world’s ocean every year originate in just five rapidly developing economies in Asia — Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and China. To prevent this, Ocean Conservancy is seeking to raise over $150 million to design and build waste management and recycling systems in Southeast Asia.

Hardesty et al found that within Australia, approximately three-quarters of the rubbish along the coast to be plastic. Debris was more highly concentrated around major cities, suggesting local source point pollution. As the quantity of debris increases in the marine environment, so does the likelihood of impacts from debris to marine fauna resulting in entanglement and ingestion and indirectly through chemical affects. Hardesty, BD, C Wilcox, TJ Lawson, M Lansdell and T van der Velde (2014). Understanding the effects of marine debris on wildlife. Final report to Earthwatch Australia Hardesty et al found that the strongest effect on debris count at a site to be due to littering behaviour. Transport by water was second, with a discernible but smaller effect from wind transport. The two strongest predictors of debris at a site were economic wealth and social disadvantage in the population near the site. Hardesty, et al. (2016) Understanding debris sources and transport from the coastal margin to the ocean. CSIRO: EP165651

Effect of the mobility of marine debris: Plastic debris and microplastics are transported by ocean currents across borders. Northern Australia has some of the highest densities of ghost nets in the world, with up to 3 tons washing ashore per kilometre of shoreline annually The Gulf of Carpentaria which is an important breeding area for several species of turtle (flat- back, green, hawksbill, loggerhead, and olive), is subject to an influx of abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear from the extensive fisheries of South-east Asia. Wilcox et al estimated that the total number of turtles caught by the 8690 ghost nets sampled was between 4866 and 14,600, assuming nets drift for 1 year. The risk from entanglement was quantified by mapping the distribution of turtles and predicting the drift trajectories of ghost nets using an ocean circulation model, to estimate probable encounter rates Wilcox, C., Heathcote, G., Goldberg, J., Gunn, R., Peel, D. and Hardesty, B. D. (2015), Understanding the sources and effects of abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing gear on marine turtles in northern Australia. Conservation Biology, 29: 198–206. doi:10.1111/cobi.12355; UNEP (2016). Marine plastic debris and microplastics – Global lessons and research to inspire action and guide policy change. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.

Conversion of plastics to oil: The United Nations estimates plastic accounts for four-fifths of the accumulated garbage in the world’s oceans. This debris could be kept out of waterways by recycling existing plastics. Plastics can be converted to fuel by the pyrolysis process (heating the plastic in an oxygen-free chamber to about 4000 C to break down long chain polymers into smaller molecules) As the plastics boil, gas is separated out. The fuel is then distilled and filtered. Because the entire process takes place inside a vacuum and the plastic is melted minimal to no resultant toxins are released into the air, as all the gases and or sludge are reused to fuel the machine. However, some types of plastics e.g. pure hydrocarbons, such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) are more suitable than others for using this technology. PE and PP plastics are used in bottle caps, appliance plastics, nursery planters and dirty plastics such as meat wrappings With polystyrene (PVC) the large amounts of chlorine produced is likely to corrode the reactor and pollute the environment. Burning Polyethylene_terephthalate (PETE) which is widely used to bottle water and carbonated soft drinks, releases oxygen into the oxygen deprived chamber thereby slowing the processing, and is better recycled because of the high value of the resin. Several commercial machines are available for converting plastics to fuel. For example, in Niagara Falls, NY, John Bordynuik’s ‘Plastic Eating Monster accepts unwashed, unsorted waste plastics, composites and commingled materials and returns about 1 gallon of fuel from 8.3 pounds of plastic. In the UK Cynar’s ‘End of Life Plastic to Diesel’ product converts mixed Waste Plastics into synthetic fuels that are cleaner, low in sulphur and in the case of the diesel, a higher cetane than generic diesel fuel. The Japanese company Ltd. markets small-scale systems that can convert PP, PE and PVC plastics into fuel oil. While Blest see a market in developing countries, they have demonstrated their Be-h machine (560 (W) x 320 (D) x 500 (H) mm; 50 kg) in schools in USA, Australia, Canada and Brazil educating children about environment issues and how plastics can be made into oil. The machine is claimed to be easy to set up on site so that it could be used where the waste plastics are collected and treated. . Is there potential for service organizations to partner with schools? Given the mobility of debris perhaps even overseas schools?

UN initiatives: The Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) of international agencies, Governments, NGOs, academia, private sector, civil society and individuals aims to

• To reduce the impacts of marine litter worldwide on economies, ecosystem, animal welfare and human health.
• To enhance international cooperation and coordination through the promotion and implementation of the Honolulu Strategy – a global framework for the prevention and management of marine debris, as well as the Honolulu Commitment – a multi-stakeholder pledge.
• To promote knowledge management, information sharing and monitoring of progress on the implementation of the Honolulu Strategy.
• To promote resource efficiency and economic development through waste prevention e.g. 4Rs (reduce, re-use, recycle and re-design) and by recovering valuable material and/or energy from waste.
• To increase awareness on sources of marine litter, their fate and impacts.
• To assess emerging issues related to the fate and potential influence of marine litter, including (micro) plastics uptake in the food web and associated transfer of pollutants and impacts on the conservation and welfare of marine fauna. Having identified marine debris as a major global challenge UN Environment launched the Clean Seas campaign in an endeavour to eliminate major sources of marine litter by 2022, focusing on single-use plastic and micro-plastics in cosmetics. Governments are urged to pass plastic reduction policies; industry is being targeted to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products; and consumers called on to change their habits. The UK, the US and Canada have announced bans on microbeads in personal care and cosmetics products, and the CleanSeas campaign is encouraging more countries to follow suit. Nearly 40 countries accounting for more than half of the world’s coastline have joined the UN’s CleanSeas campaign against marine litter and ocean pollution, announcing measures including plastic bag bans, new marine reserves and drives to increase recycling. At the close of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi 4-6 December 2017, environment ministers issued a declaration committing to increasing research and development, targeting pollution through tailored actions, moving societies towards sustainable lifestyles based on a circular economy, promoting fiscal incentives to move markets and promote positive change, strengthening and enforcing laws on pollution. Among the-non binding resolutions and decisions were moves to address marine litter and microplastics (submitted by Norway and Australia and co-sponsored by Iraq and Monaco), prevent and reduce air pollution, cut out lead poisoning from paint and batteries, protect water-based ecosystems from pollution, deal with soil pollution, and manage pollution in areas hit by conflict and terrorism. According to Boomerang Alliance, Australia has yet to commit support to the Cleanseas

Australian Government Initiatives: A threat abatement plan (TAP) prepared in 2009 and focusing on the impact of entanglement and ingestion of marine debris on vertebrate marine life was reviewed in 2015.It was noted that understanding of the global nature of the marine debris problem, as well as the potential sub-lethal and other impacts of microplastic and associated chemical contamination, had increased over the life of that plan. A Senate Inquiry report highlighted the need for improved action on many issues relevant to the TAP. Environment and Communications References Committee (2016) Toxic tide: the threat of marine plastic A TAP(2017) Under the six very worthwhile objectives of TAP 2017 are actions:

1. Contribute to the long-term prevention of the incidence of marine debris.
1.01 Establish a TAP team to coordinate TAP actions for the life of the plan.
1.02 Limit the amount of single use plastic material lost to the environment in Australia
1.03 Encourage development of a circular economy in Australia
1.04 Encourage innovation in recovery and waste treatment technologies
1.05 Improve management of ghost nets
1.06 Improve shipping waste management

2. Identify key species, ecological communities, ecosystems and locations impacted by marine debris for priority action.
2.01 Update the list of marine debris impacted EPBC species, as scientific evidence is published.
2.02 Monitor ecological research on marine debris to determine if further EPBC listed ecological communities are threatened by marine debris.
2.03 Identify locations within Australian waters where major circulation patterns cause aggregations of marine debris

3. Conduct research to understand and mitigate the impacts of marine microplastic and plastic debris on marine species and ecological communities.
3.01 Build understanding related to microplastic pollution
3.02 Determine microplastic’s relevance to the Australian Government’s Science and Research Priorities and corresponding Practical Research Challenges,
3.03 Survey marine plastic pollution in the southern ocean, sub-Antarctic islands, as well as other high value offshore island environments.

4. Remove existing marine debris.
4.01 Support beach based clean-up efforts
4.02 Improve the effectiveness of Australian Government grants in relation to marine debris operations
4.03 Removal of derelict fishing gear from Australia’s ocean and coast
4.04 Develop understanding on the potential for biological breakdown of plastic to aid in its removal from the marine environment

5. Monitor the quantities, origins, types and hazardous chemical contaminants of marine debris, and assess the effectiveness of management arrangements over time for reducing marine debris.
5.01 Continued collection of data in long term beach survey.
5.02 Maintain a national database for long term marine debris beach survey data and promote standard methodologies for collecting and ongoing monitoring of beach clean-up debris
5.03 Enhanced collection of data related to ghost net retrievals from Commonwealth waters across northern Australia
5.04 Continue to monitor persistent organic pollutant using plastic resin pellets from Australian beaches
5.05 Assess the effectiveness of Australia’s waste management in reducing the levels of plastics entering the marine environment
5.06 Regularly conduct assessment of mean surface plastic loads and associated hazardous chemical contaminants across Australian jurisdictions and territories
5.07 Improved understanding of the impact and origins of ghost nets.

6. Increase public understanding of the causes and impacts of harmful marine debris, including microplastic and hazardous chemical contaminants in order to generate behaviour change.
6.01 Raise the profile of marine debris impacts on listed threatened marine species.
Department of Environment and Energy (2017) Draft Threat Abatement Plan for the impacts of marine debris on vertebrate marine life Australia is undertaking many useful initiatives e.g. governments extending marine reserves; supermarkets phasing out plastic bags; businesses banning plastic drinking straws. However, with 25,760 km of coastline and in receipt of other countries plastic waste e.g. ghost fishing nets, surely Australia could be more proactive with domestic legislation and using the UN Environment platform to argue for countries to take responsibility of the marine waste originating in their country? A submission to the Federal Government has been prepared on this issue.

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