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Research project finds Whitsunday Islands littered with rubbish

Research project finds Whitsunday Islands littered with rubbish
November 3, 2015

The Whitsunday Islands have some of the dirtiest beaches in Australia, with recent research trip finding a total of 38,000 items of marine debris on just 1,100 metres of beaches.

The joint research project between Southern Cross University, Amcor, Eco Barge and Earthwatch Institute saw volunteers comb six islands to find out what was washing up on the Whitsunday Islands beaches.

The research was established after not-for-profit group Eco Barge found around 130 tonnes of rubbish washed up on Whitsunday Island in the last six years.

In total, more than 285 kilograms of plastic found on 12 beaches.

Southern Cross University Associate Professor Steve Smith said the amount of debris found sees the islands among the dirtiest in Australia, stating “it was a real eye-opener and it was very challenging.

“From the marine debris we collected, these are among the dirtiest beaches I have seen in Australia and are equivalent to some of the beaches in South East Asia," he said.

"We had one 10-metre section of a beach where we found 3,900 items of debris which were mostly bits of plastic."

Professor Smith said most of the rubbish was found on the southern side of the islands, which were the least popular for visitors, but which faced the prevailing south east trade winds.

He explained “from the rubbish we have analysed to date, we estimate around 30-50% is from overseas with Chinese material the biggest contributor.

“A lot of that Chinese rubbish lacked marine growth so it is almost certainly coming off vessels visiting Australian ports.”

Professor Smith said the next step in the project was to analyse all the debris collected, to confirm likely sources.

He added “if we can clearly demonstrate where it is coming from, and the source is related to an activity that can be regulated such as disposal from shipping, then there are clear management implications and areas we can target.

"Some have labels still in place, some have writing on the bottle and or cap that we can recognise, and therefore we can work out the source of the bottles,

"At the moment, our best hypothesis is they are being thrown off ships passing through Australian coastal waters."

Professor Smith said he was surprised the group only came across one instance on the beaches where a bird had died after become entangled with fishing ropes.

While conducting snorkelling surveys, further instances where wildlife had come in contact with plastic debris was evident, explaining “we did snorkelling surveys and we saw a lot of debris under the water.

"There was evidence of interactions with wildlife; where you could see impacts of where wildlife has come in contact with the debris and that has caused some harm."

Professor Smith said the size of the plastic was most threatening to wildlife health, with increasing evidence worldwide of birds and turtles being found dead after ingesting tiny pieces of plastic.

He said 650 species so far had been documented to ingest plastics worldwide, adding “the most abundant type of debris found, the plastic bits and pieces, were at the size where they could be ingested by birds and turtles.

"That size of debris is known to have huge impacts on wildlife and can lead to mortality, so the potential for impact was really large."

Amcor’s Vice President, Safety Environment & Sustainability, David Clark, said: “As a company, Amcor wants to be part of the solution. Participating in this exhibition enables us to make an important contribution to creating a data based understand the impacts of packaging waste on the environment. The next step is to then use this data to help find workable solutions to reduce that impact.

“Our 15 year partnership with Earthwatch is one of a number of programs we are involved in to find new and better solutions to reduce the impacts of our products on the environment.”

Amcor has sent 172 employees on more than 60 research projects around the world, to pursue personal and professional development and increase cultural understanding.

Earthwatch Australia deputy Chief Executive and Director of Programs Cassandra Nichols said the partnership enabled Amcor employees to become environmental stewards within the organisation and in their own lives. It helps to build capacity within the company to be more sustainable.

Nichols stated “in recent years, the program has expanded to incorporate a Natural Capital framework. Natural capital comprises of the Earth’s natural assets, soil, air, water, flora and fauna, and the ecosystem services resulting from them, which make human life possible.”

Southern Cross University has been undertaking a range of marine debris projects around Australia and South East Asia.

This is the second collaborative marine debris project with Amcor and Earthwatch and the first opportunity to collect data from the Great Barrier Reef, with the help of citizen scientists.

Professor Smith hopes the research will feed into the current Federal senate inquiry into The threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia and raise awareness on a community level.

He concluded “the best thing that can come out of it is to raise awareness of the inappropriate disposal of plastics, and my personal wish that it will change individual behaviours so that we can stop plastics entering the water.”

Click here for more information.

Images: Collecting marine debris on a Whitsunday beach (top) and turtles have been found dead after ingesting tiny pieces of plastic (below).

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