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Plastic and politics: how bureaucracy is failing our forgotten wildlife

Seabirds: the poster children for ocean health. Fishers use them to identify fishing hot spots. Environmental and marine scientists use them as indicators of the condition of the ocean environment due…

Plastic is a major threat to our seabirds and marine life - this bird has filled its stomach with plastic during the 80-90 days it lived. Ian Hutton

Seabirds: the poster children for ocean health. Fishers use them to identify fishing hot spots. Environmental and marine scientists use them as indicators of the condition of the ocean environment due to their ability to cover vast areas. But in Australia, one such species – the Flesh-footed Shearwater – is declining, while the government delays a decision on listing it as Vulnerable.

The Flesh-footed Shearwater (Puffinus carneipes) is a large, conspicuous seabird with a raucous call of “pick me, pick me” that cannot be ignored. But ignore it we do.

The birds migrate across wide expanses of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But their main breeding grounds are on our doorstep in Australia - the largest population is on Lord Howe Island – with the remaining populations spread across South and Western Australia and New Zealand.

Those breeding grounds are in trouble. The Lord Howe Island population has declined by around 50% since 1978 (Reid et al. in press). New Zealand’s population was revised from 25,000 pairs in 2000 to 11,600 pairs in 2010, with breeding abandoned on ten islands. In Western Australia, a survey I conducted in 2011, the first in almost 35 years, found the population hovering at less than 50,000 pairs.

The Flesh-footed Shearwater is under particular threat from improper waste disposal. Flickr/ajmatthehiddenhouse

Multiple factors – encroaching urbanisation, bycatch mortality in fisheries, and introduced predators - account for these declines. But emerging on the scene as a serious threat to populations is the confronting issue of plastic pollution in the marine environment.

Accumulations of rubbish in the North Pacific Gyre were first noticed 20 years ago. Nicknamed the “Pacific Garbage Patch”, this area now contains up to 40 times more plastic than plankton. But the plastic problem is not limited to the Pacific Garbage Patch. Each day, our oceans are fed more than 20 million new plastic items – or around ~6.4 million tons per year. Wind and waves send this plastic around the globe, so that one country’s garbage washes up in another’s backyard.

Which brings us back to the Flesh-footed Shearwater. More than 75% of Shearwater chicks on Lord Howe contain large quantities of plastic, fed to them by their parents who mistake it for food. In 2011, one dead chick I examined had more than 275 pieces of plastic in its stomach, equivalent to a human eating around 8kg of the stuff.

Clearly, eating plastic is never going to be a good idea, but new evidence suggests it may be worse than previously thought because plastics bring with them certain chemicals known to be toxic. These include phthalates, which may be added during manufacturing to make the plastic more flexible, and heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) absorbed from the seawater. Some of these toxins have been detected at worryingly high levels in the tissues of seabirds that have ingested plastics.

Flesh-footed Shearwater chicks are often mistakenly fed deadly waste. Ian Hutton

And it’s not just seabirds that ingest plastics. More than 265 marine species are at risk, with new studies published every week showing fish, invertebrates (such as mussels and sea cucumbers), and even algae are ingesting plastic particles. Many of these species are at the base of the marine food chain, their fortunes dictating the success of hundreds of other species that rely on them.

So, what can we do? We can continue to apply pressure for cash for containers schemes in Australia so more plastic bottles go into recycling. And Australia can stop ignoring the plight of those animals it should be trying to preserve. In Australia, threatened species like the Shearwater are supposed to be protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, based on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines. But the EPBC Act is proving wholly inadequate due to cumbersome bureaucracy. Over 50 Australian bird species that merit listing according to IUCN rules remain unlisted.

The Flesh-footed Shearwater likely meets IUCN criteria for listing as Vulnerable based on an “observed, estimated, inferred or suspected population size reduction of more than 30% over the last 10 years”. Despite the necessary paper work being submitted to the Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities in March 2012, the Shearwater remains unlisted. The Department is delaying its decision for two and a half years, until September 2014. New Zealand, meanwhile, flexing its conservation muscles like an All Blacks haka, promptly listed the species as “Nationally Vulnerable” in September 2012.

And time does matter. While an official listing probably won’t reverse the Shearwater’s downward spiral, it could help slow it by making the species a conservation priority, freeing up state and federal funding targeted at threatened species. And it would mean that after decades in the dark, our poster child of ocean health is finally in the spotlight.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Jeremy Tager


    The listing process in Australia is incredibly slow, under resourced and it's failing. There are no mandatory time frames for listing, there is no mandatory listing process, there is no emergency listing provision for a new species or one that is at sudden risk because of, say, bush fires, Many of the critical components of species protection, such as protection of critical habitat aren't mandatory in any way. It is easier to build a coal mine than to get a species listed. And once you're listed…

    Read more
    1. Paul Wittwer


      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      Jeremy, thanks for the link. What really struck me while scrolling down the list of submissions was the incredibly large number of groups working for the environment in Australia.
      When one thinks of all the people actively working in these groups, plus their sympathisers, they could if organised properly form an enormously powerful force for the Australian environment.
      We need a national coalition of environmental groups to bring governments to account.

    2. Jeremy Tager


      In reply to Paul Wittwer

      Hi Paul
      that was my reaction too...and I know a number of people and groups that didn't make submissions because they don't believe any of these processes matter or work. The difficulty and the critical issue is not only to organise them but to convince many of them that working on a single issue or species combined with the larger narrative that binds the stories together is absolutely critical to success.

    3. MC Loven


      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      "offsetting" optimistically assumes the project hasn't been assessed as significant enough by the minister of the day for any number of reasons, including economic projections externalising pesky notions of ecology. Assuming, of course, that The Minister hasn't already decided to exercise his ultimate veto power at his private discretion.

  2. Les McNamara


    Will "cash for containers" make any difference? Is there any research on the composition and origin of the plastic?

  3. Peter Rutherford

    logged in via email

    It seems to me that container deposit legislation (CDL) and listing a threatened species won't achieve much. I can still remember when soft drink bottles (glass) could be returned for 6 pence. Lots of people still littered, it was just worthwhile for someone else, usually children after pocket money, to clean up after the littering pigs.

    Stronger and enforcement of anti littering laws is what is needed to change the habitual littering habits of millions of consumers who don’t think twice about throwing away plastic and any other item they no longer need. CDL & clean up Australia Day are well meaning reactions to a culture of littering. These initiatives will not stop the problem at the source.

  4. Diana Taylor

    retired psychotherapist

    Please include balloons. I frequently find them washed up on the shore with their non-biodegradable nylon strings attached. Balloons are a danger not only becasue they can be mistaken for food, but because their strings can entrap sea creatures.

  5. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    The government bounty system marshalled efforts for the elimination of, mainly, animals in the past, which were deemed to be a problem.
    A bounty on plastics, coupled with the scheme to reuse same as an alternative to fossil fuels, might see plastics being gathered up on a broad scale and exchanged for cold, hard cash, with some of that cash coming from recycled uses.
    These destructive plastics appear in the market place and perhaps the market place, with a bit of government prodding, can provide a solution.
    The recycling of plastic bottles into diesel fuel has been shown to be commercially feasible, if the government fuel excise is removed.
    The Howard government refused to back this intitiative, which could have reduced the amount of waste plastic reaching the waterways.
    There is a federal election in the offing, vote wisely.

  6. Lyndal Breen

    logged in via Facebook

    Doing Clean-Up Australia on 3rd March, we found many small plastic pieces such as individual polystyrene balls, which are very difficult to pick up. The so-called bio-degradable plastic bags are also a problem as they disintegrate into tiny (edible) pieces. Most plastic in the environment is there because people choose to drop waste items on the ground rather than to responsibly dispose of them. "Keep Australia Beautiful" and Clean-up Australia have some effect but it needs to become unthinkable to allow waste, particularly plastic to escape into the environment. People also need to be a little less prissy and pick up the rubbish around them. Scenes of the city under garbage after big events shows that many people think that it's someone else's job to dispose of rubbish. Wind and water will ultimately deposit much discarded plastic into the marine environment

  7. Paul Sharp

    logged in via Facebook

    Plastic pollution is a symptom of failed design. Upwards of 30% of plastic pollution around Australia is beverage industry related. This is a problem that didn't exist when bottlers used green refillable bottling systems (refillable bottling uses fewer raw materials, less water, less energy, delivers a cheaper product, creates local jobs and potentially ZERO plastic pollution)
    We need manufacturers to be held accountable for polluting design and to legislate a return to reusable design and/or effective reverse logistics for common plastic pollution items.
    The most effective reverse logistics are based around refund systems, the higher the refund, the higher the recovery rates, up to 98% in some cases.

    1. Les McNamara


      In reply to Paul Sharp

      Perhaps. But what environmental harm is being caused by plastic bottles? Energy and water for collection, transport and washing must erode a lot of the apparent environmental benefit of refillable glass? There might be some minor benefit for wildlife if there are less plastic lids and lid rings about, but the impact from lids can probably be managed in other ways, including through better design.

      To help the shearwaters we really need to know what kind of plastic they are eating and where it is coming from. If it's twine, polystyrene, lolly wrappers and bags, doing away with plastic bottles may not be the best solution.

      Pardon the pun, but plastic bottles and maybe even other kinds of plastic containers may just be a red herring.