‘Plastic is literally everywhere’: the epidemic attacking Australia’s oceans

It never breaks down and goes away, say scientists struggling to understand the impact of widespread pollution

While heading down the Brisbane river, Jim Hinds once pulled aboard a drunken half-naked man only seconds from” going down for the last period “.

But on this day, like most other days for Hinds, it’s back to the horribly predictable as he launches his barge into the Nerang river on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Instantly you see it.

Decaying plastic bags hanging from the branches of mangroves like dripping flesh; slicks of plastic water bottles and food containers waiting ashore for the liberation of the next rising tide; the misnamed “disposable” plastic and styrofoam drinking beakers; and other plastic paraphernalia in the different stages of disintegration.

” Everyone knows littering’s wrong- that’s not a secret. But it’s just nonsensical ,” tells Jim. His son Patrick, 21, has jumped ashore to pick up a vinyl football ball and about a dozen soft drinks bottles.

Hinds works for Queensland environmental conservation group Healthy Land and Water. His chore is to travel the coastal waterways and pick up rubbish- he’ll often have one of his two sons with him. His father also used to do the job.

In recent years, he has been grabbing about 10,000 items a month.” Consistently we’re getting plastic bottles- there are so many of them ,” Jim says.

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Rubbish strewn on Chilli beach in Queensland. Photo: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

Hinds is working at the coalface of an epidemic of plastic pollution which, Guardian Australia has procured, is attacking Australia’s beaches, waterways and oceans, and the animals that live there.

From the most remote wilderness idylls to city coastlines, scientists and citizens have collected and documented millions of pieces of plastic debris.

Out at sea, expeditions skimming ocean waters, circumnavigating the continent, help find concentrations of plastics as high as 9,000 pieces for every square kilometre.

Sediment taken from the bottom of estuaries operating through busy Australian township contains tiny microplastic pieces and scientists find the same thing when they analyse samples of the ocean floor hundreds of kilometres offshore.

” Plastic is everywhere, all of the time ,” tells Dr Denise Hardesty, a principal research scientist at CSIRO.” It is in the air, the wind, the water and the clay and we find it in as many places as we seem .”

In late 2012 and 2013, Hardesty experienced a series of “gut-wrenching” research trips by floatplane to some of the most remote parts of Australia- the west coast of Tasmania and the Kimberley region in Western Australia.

” These places are pristine … quote, unquote ,” she says.” You stroll on to these beaches and no matter where you are there’s junk and it’s so confronting. Everywhere you go, you see it .”

Hardesty is helping to lead a global CSIRO project to understand how and why plastics are escaping the legitimate waste and recycling streams and where and how they travel. Her team’s tackling trips to so-called pristine beaches were part of a study published in late 2016 that had eventually counted litter at 175 coastal sites around the continent.

About three of every four items documented were plastic and the study concluded a key cause was, simply, littering.” In general, most of the junk is coming from us ,” Hardesty tells.

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Tangaroa Blue volunteers retrieving ghost nets at a beach in Mapoon, Queensland. Photograph: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

The scientific literature is awash with research documenting plastics of all sizes in every environment that’s been studied- from the deep ocean to both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Microplastic is the term used to describe any piece of plastic less than 5mm broad – it’s mostly the broken-apart remnants of straw, fishing nets and all manner of other plastic items, creating trillions of tiny pieces.

Dr Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, has expended the past 15 years analyse the impacts of plastics.

In 2015 Lavers travelled to one of the most remote places on countries around the world– the uninhabited Henderson Island in the middle of the Pacific- to find this world heritage-listed coral atoll’s beaches strewn with an estimated 37 m pieces of plastic weighing about 17 tonnes– the equivalent of less than two seconds of global plastic production.

Just one washed-up angling net, barely a decade old, was disintegrating into trillions of plastic fibres that gave the surround sand a lucid green splash.

” You can’t prepare yourself for moments like that ,” she says.

Northern Australia is a known hotspot for these so-called ” ghost nets” that are left to haunt the lives of marine animals. One project, GhostNets Australia, has collected more than 13,000 nets since 2004. A study analysed 9,000 nets found in the north of Australia and estimated that they alone had probably caught between 4,866 and 14,600 turtles.

” Nowhere is safe, and plastic is literally everywhere ,” tells Lavers.” No locating and no species is likely to remain immune for any period of time. It is ubiquitous. We are literally drowning in this stuff .”

Plastic tsunami

Chilli beach is a two-hour drive north from the Aboriginal community of Lockhart River , north of Cairns in Kutini-Payamu national park.

Heidi Taylor, the founder of charity Tangaroa Blue, takes a squad of volunteers, school children and traditional proprietors up to the area each year to clear the beach. In 2013 the first year different groups did a full “clean sweep” of the 7km-long beach, they collected 5.5 tonnes of material.

” But for every one full item, there was probably 100 fragments that were scattered- like colourful confetti through the sand ,” Taylor tells.” Every hour you went to pick something up, it would disintegrate in your hands because it had been there for decades .”

In five years, different groups went from grabbing 5.5 tonnes a visit to only 2.3 tonnes. But in 2017, they assembled seven tonnes, probably thanks to hurricanes in the Pacific pushing older material on to Australia’s shores.

There is an Aboriginal community at Mapoon , north of Weipa on the west of Cape York. Their 14 km beach is another regular location for Tangaroa Blue’s work.

In recent years, an Indonesian government crackdown on illegal angling in the Arafura Sea has watched a drop in the number of ghost nets making the beach.

But in 2017, the group was shocked when they arrived to find 10,601 plastic beverage bottles from a 7km stretch- and most of them were the popular Indonesian brand Danone Aqua.

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Welcome to Australia’s plastic beach- video

” Plastic is one of the most useful materials we have ever made. Our problem is not with plastic as training materials but what we utilize it for. We construct so many things that don’t involve the longevity that plastic has- we don’t need a straw that we will use to sip one drinking that will stay in the environment eternally ,” Taylor says.

As well as running beach cleanup, Tangaroa Blue has coordinated data from cleanups run by other groups around Australia since 2004.

The data encompass 2,460 different sites with more than 878 tonnes of material removed over 14 years , and it presents about three-quarters of what is collected is plastic. For comparison, that’s about the same weight as 535 Holden utes. The database has just recorded its 10 millionth piece of debris.

So, while the evidence for the ubiquity of plastics is clear, Lavers tells much less is known about the impact of this tsunami of plastics on the habitats and species that are taking it in.” When it comes to wildlife our knowledge is constrained to individual level impacts ,” she says.

Even though reports of single whales with stomachs filled with plastic bags and ropes are unbelievably graphic and distressing, Lavers says” the scientific question becomes … so what ?”

Understanding the impact of the ingestion of plastics on whole animal populations and habitats is now a major scientific challenge.” Is plastic either now, or likely to be, a driver of population decline for any devoted species ,” she asks.

” The answer to that question is almost invariably’ we don’t know .’ It isn’t that the plastic doesn’t have the capacity to do that, but it is very difficult to document .”

She says while it’s easier to observe the impact of plastic on a species in a laboratory environment, it is much more difficult to tease apart its impact in the real world when species are already being hit by other impacts such as climate change, coastal developments, disease or overfishing.” We are in a big data gap ,” she says.

In 2013 Lavers published a journal paper looking at Australian flesh-footed shearwater birds. She found they were likely more contaminated by plastic than any other known marine vertebrate studied anywhere else in the world.

But Lavers also hypothesised the plastic ingestion could be cutting the survival rates of chicks by about 11% annually.

” The smaller the piece of plastic, the more species devour it. Everything that’s tiny is at the base of the food web, so it’s not just albatross and sperm whales, you literally have microplastics and nanoplastics being feed by sea cucumbers, corals, clams and muscles, zooplankton and krill- right at the very base of the food web. You have all levels of the food web infiltrated. And where the plastics run, the chemicals follow .”

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A dissected flesh-footed shearwater bird taken from Lord Howe Island in 2017, with plastic pieces from its belly arranged beside it. Photograph: Jennifer Lavers

According to Lavers, research has found that plastics act as a vehicle to transport toxins and metals such as leading, cadmium and arsenic into the tissues of animals.

Her own studies, and those of other scientists, have shown that such metals can be transferred from the plastics feed by animals into their tissues. Toxic chemicals have also been found to leaching into the tissues of animals via the plastics they have eaten.

” We should not simply wait for or demand more data before we can make a decision ,” she tells.” We should default to the likely outcome. If danger is possible, we should heed the warning and do something to prevent it .”

Policy answer

Campaigners have had some success in persuading governments to introduce receptacle deposit schemes where plastics can be recycled for money. South Australians have been returning plastics and other items since 1977.

In early 2013, the liquor giants Coca-Cola Amatil, Lion Nathan and Schweppes successfully opposed the Northern Territory’s then-new container deposit strategy in the courts. The government changed the rules but reintroduced the strategy, which has been running since August 2013.

The New South Wales scheme has been running since December 2017, while the Australian Capital Territory’s scheme is due to start at the end of June 2018. Queensland tells its scheme will be published in November 2018 and in Western Australia, a program will start in 2019. Tasmania and Victoria have no concrete plans.

These schemes do work. A CSIRO analyze in Australia and the US looked at the numbers of drinks receptacles found in coastal areas where receptacle deposit laws were in place. The analyze found that by financially incentivising members of the public to recycle, there were about 40% fewer plastic drinkings receptacles recorded in litter surveys.

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Plastic draping plants in the Torres Strait. Photo: Tangaroa Blue Foundation

Bans on single-use plastic bags will roll out this year in Victoria, WA and Queensland, joining existing prohibits in NT, SA, the ACT and Tasmania.

There is a lot of evidence that these schemes have a significant impact on litter ,” Hardesty says.” Cash for receptacles works ,” she tells.” But what I keep coming back to is the thought that all the stuff we find out there was once in a person’s hand. That means you can make a change .”

Lavers agrees that the bans are welcome but tells governments have been far too slow to introduce schemes that have been shown to work.

” If we want change and we want the quantity of plastics going into the ocean to go down, then the rate of change in our society needs to outstrip the rate of plastics going into the ocean ,” she tells.” And right now we are not even close .”

While the new legislation is likely to slow down the wave of plastic pollution hitting Australia’s coastal waters, there’s little that could be done about the mountains of plastic that’s already out there.” I don’t think going out there and cleaning it all up is a super viable proposition ,” she says.

Both Lavers and Hardesty think what’s needed is a societal switching in how communities and industries use and recycle plastics.

” Plastic never actually go forth … where is this magical mystic place we call’ away ‘,” asks Lavers.” We know plastics take anywhere between 100 and 10,000 years to break up … and I don’t use the term’ break down ‘. It never breaks down and goes away .”

Back on the Nerang river and the collect bin on Jim Hinds’s boat is full with plastic strips, balls, suitcases, bottles and food wrappers. He is feeling philosophical but not hopeless.

” I think people are careless ,” he tells.” I don’t think there are a lot of scoundrels.

” I always hope that it’s generational- that the next generation will be better than ours. I guess that’s the great hope .”

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Turning cities into sponges: how Chinese ancient wisdom is taking on climate change

Landscape architect Kongjian Yu is building friends with water to mitigate extreme weather events in modern metropolises

How does a city cope with extreme weather? These days, urban planning that doesn’t factor in some sort of catastrophic weather event is like trying to build something in a fictional utopia. For Kongjian Yu, one of the world’s leading landscape architects, the answer to coping with extreme weather events actually lies in the past.

Yu is the founder and dean of the school of landscape architecture at Peking University, founding director of architectural firm Turenscape, and famous for being the person who is reintroduced ancient Chinese water systems to modern design. In the process he has transformed some of China’s most industrialised cities into standard bearers of green architecture.

Yu’s designs aim to build resilience in cities faced with rising sea level, droughts, deluges and so-called ” once in a lifetime” cyclones. At 53, he is best known for his” sponge cities”, which use soft material and terraces to capture water which can then be extracted for employ, rather than the usual concrete and steel materials which do not absorb water.

European methods of designing cities involve drainage pipelines which cannot be dealt with monsoonal rain. But the Chinese government has now adopted sponge cities as an urban development and eco-city template.

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Kongjian Yu, founder of Turenscape and proponent of sponge cities. Photograph: Turenscape/ NGV

Yu spoke in Melbourne on Tuesday at a symposium on water-conscious design held as part of Melbourne Design Week at the National Gallery of Victoria. Speaking to Guardian Australia ahead of his appearance, Yu, who is based in Beijing, explained the key benefit of sponge cities is the ability to reuse water.” The water captured by the sponge can be used for irrigation, for recharging the aquifer, for cleansing the soil and for productive use ,” Yu said.

” In China, we retain storm water and reuse it. Even as individual families and homes, we collect storm water on[ the] rooftop and use the balcony to irrigate the vegetable garden .”

When it comes to water, the motto of the sponge city are:” Retain, adapt, slow down and reuse .”

His firm currently has 600 employees and works across 200 cities in China. The firm has completed more than 600 projects and won a swag of major architecture and design awards.

The strategies Yu utilizes are” based on peasant farming techniques, adapting peasant irrigation systems to urban environments and experience in accommodating buildings to a monsoon climate “.

The first strategy-” based on thousands of years of Chinese wisdom”- is to” contain water at the origin, when the rain falls from the sky on the ground. We have to keep the water “.

” In China, there is a shortage of fresh water ,” Yu tells.” China has only 8% of fresh water of the world and feeds 20% of the population- so any fresh water from the sky will need to be kept in an aquifer .”

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Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals

Exclusive: Tests demonstrate billions of people globally are drinking water contaminated by plastic particles, with 83% of samples found to be polluted

Microplastic contamination has been may be in tap water in countries around the world, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media, who shared the findings with the Guardian. Overall, 83% of the samples were polluted with plastic fibres.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibers found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress builds, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, but this was still 72%. The median number of fibers found in each 500 ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous run has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood.

” We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and potential impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned ,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb.” If it’s impacting[ wildlife ], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us ?”

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A magnified image of garment microfibres from washing machine effluent. One analyze found that a fleece coat can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per clean. Photo: Politenes of Rozalia Project

A separate small examine in the Republic of Ireland released in June also find microplastic contamination in a handful of tap water and well samples.” We don’t know what the[ health] impact is and for the above reasons we should follow the precautionary principle and put enough endeavor into it now, immediately, so we can find out what the real risks are ,” said Dr Anne Marie Mahon at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, who conducted the research.

Mahon said there were two principal concerns: very small plastic particles and the chemicals or pathogens that microplastics can harbour.” If the fibres are there, it is possible that the nanoparticles are there too that we can’t measure ,” she said.” Once they are in the nanometre scope they can really penetrate a cell and that means they can penetrate organs, and that would be fretting .” The Orb analyses caught particles of more than 2.5 microns in size, 2,500 times bigger than a nanometre.

Microplastics can attract bacteria found in sewage, Mahon said:” Some studies have shown there are more harmful pathogens on microplastics downstream of wastewater therapy plants .”

Plastic fibres found in tap water across the world

Microplastics are also known to contain and assimilate toxic chemicals and research on wild animals shows they are released in the body. Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb:” It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate genuinely quite rapid release .” His research has shown microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with examines in Germany receiving fibres and fragments in all of the 24 brew brands they tested, as well as in honey and sugar. In Paris in 2015, researchers discovered microplastic falling from the air, which they estimated deposits three to 10 tonnes of fibres on the city each year, and that it was also present in the air in people’s homes.

This research led Frank Kelly, prof of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary investigation in 2016:” If we inhale them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation .” Having ensure the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.

The new research tested 159 samples utilizing a standard technique to eliminate contamination from other sources and was performed at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. The samples came from across the world, including from Uganda, Ecuador and Indonesia.

How microplastics end up in drinking water is for now a mystery, but the atmosphere is one obvious source, with fibres shed by the everyday wear and tear of clothes and carpets. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air.

” We actually think that the lakes[ and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs ,” told Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Creteil, who did the Paris analyses.” What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout .”

Plastic fibers may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent survey seeing that each cycle of a clean machine could release 700,000 fibers into the environment. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells being implemented in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.

In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were polluted.” This research merely scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one ,” told Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf, which collected samples for Orb.

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This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photo: Richard Kirby/ Courtesy of Orb Media

Current standard water treatment systems do not filter out all of the microplastics, Mahon said:” There is nowhere actually where you can say these are being trapped 100%. In terms of fibers, the diameter is 10 microns across and it would be very unusual to find that level of filtration in our drinking water systems .”

Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tapwater, as the they were also found in a few cases samples of commercial bottled water tested in the US for Orb.

Almost 300 m tonnes of plastic is made per year and, with merely 20% recycled or incinerated, much of it aims up littering the air, land and ocean. A report in July find 8.3 bn tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950 s, with the researchers warns that plastic waste has become ubiquitous in the environment.

” We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late ,” told Prof Roland Geyer, from the University of California and Santa Barbara, who led the study.

Mahon said the new tap water analyses create a red flag, but that more work is needed to replicate the results, find the causes of contamination and evaluate the possible health impacts.

She said plastics are very useful, but that management of the waste is necessary drastically improved:” We need plastics in our lives, but it is us that is doing the damage by discarding them in very careless ways .”

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