National Plastics Plan: the program tackling plastic pollution in South East Queensland

Clean Up Program crew members Jim and Patrick Hinds.

Worldwide, marine debris is one of the most serious threats facing oceans and coastal areas, something also threatening our communities and wildlife in South East Queensland.

Not all bad

The most recent statistical analysis from the Clean Up program reveals significant declines in the number of single use plastic bottles and plastic bags collected from waterways across the region.

This rise in public sentiment culminated in a global effort to mitigate these impacts with many countries across this time implementing plastic bag bans.

These trends have been on a sharp downward curve since 2015 and have likely been impacted by behaviour change and community information campaigns and initiatives which have led to a substantial rise in community sentiment and public perception of single use plastic bottles and plastic bags as a litter pollution item.

In 2019 the Queensland State Government enacted a plastic bag ban and implemented a Container Deposit Scheme to mitigate the impacts of these waterway pollutants. Data collected from the Clean Up program show that these policy decisions have had a significant impact on decreasing the number of these waterway litter pollutants from entering local waterways.

While programs like Healthy Land and Water’s Clean Up program are making a real difference to the health of our region’s waterways, unfortunately the program is only funded part-time. Far more could be achieved with an expanded program.

Waterway and marine litter impacts the environment, the economy, health and culture causing significant harm.

Also impacted are the values of our waterways and downstream marine environments, including the Moreton Bay Ramsar site.

Waterway and marine litter is part of the broader issue of how waste is managed in Australia, and is recognised as a major environmental and economic concern here and across the globe.

According to Healthy Land and Water CEO, Julie McLellan, the importance and value of our waterways to the local community has become increasingly important since COVID-19, and there is a growing expectation that efforts to manage the threat will need to be large-scale and collaborative to be effective.

Healthy Land and Water, in partnership with local and federal government partners delivers a program across South East Queensland that collects floating and bank-bound litter from our waterways. The Clean Up Program collects litter and debris from waterways before they do untold harm to the region’s precious marine wildlife and ecosystems.

Once the waste has been collected, our team works with research, government and community partners to analyse and categorise litter to better understand how, why and when litter is entering waterways. The data is used to inform prevention efforts and to help understand how litter can be stopped at the source.

The 2019/2020 year of the program has been jointly funded by Healthy Land and Water, the Australian Government, Brisbane City Council, City of Gold Coast, Logan City Council, Moreton Bay Regional Council and Ipswich City Council.

This co-funding model is a good example of stakeholders coming together to address a common problem through a joint solution and means the program has been able to expand its reach across the region.

On Thursday March 4 the Australian Government launched the Nation’s first National Plastics Plan, announcing it will work with industry to phase out problematic plastic materials.

Among the actions identified in the Plan is the phasing out of expanded polystyrene consumer packaging fill and polystyrene food and beverage containers by the end of 2022.

Polystyrene is commonly used as a packaging material due to its insulating and protective properties and has been identified as one of the most collected items as part of the Clean Up Program.

The Australian Government’s National Plastic Plan is tackling plastic waste through:

  • Working with industry to fast-track the phase-out of particularly problematic plastic materials.
  • Stopping the export of unprocessed plastic waste and promoting product stewardship through the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020.
  • Unprecedented investments to turbo-charge Australia’s plastic recycling capacity.
  • Research to make Australia a global leader in plastic recycling and reprocessing.
  • Community education to help consumers make informed decisions and recycle correctly.

Plastic in our waterways: polystyrene

Data collected as part of the Clean Up Program has revealed significant increases in the number of plastic pieces collected from the region’s waterways.

The top three most collected items are plastic pieces, food wrap and polystyrene (if you’d like more information about the top three items, we’ve profiled some of these at the end of this article article).

As part of the Australian Government’s plan, there is increased focus on phasing out single use plastics. The polystyrene packaging around whitegoods is also being tackled directly with plans to ban these by the middle of next year (mid-2022)

Polystyrene is problematic in the environment because once it enters a waterway, it begins to break down into smaller and smaller pieces through sun exposure and wave and wind action. Marine and freshwater animals mistake these small pieces for food and this can be problematic for their health.

Polystyrene is also resistant to photolysis, or the breaking down into its constituent chemicals by sunshine and does not biodegrade. It stays in the environment and, without intervention, remains in waterways and coastal environments indefinitely.

This, combined with the fact that polystyrene is lightweight and therefore floats, means that over time a great deal of this material has accumulated along coasts and waterways.

During the 2019/20 year of the Program there has been a dramatic increase in the number of polystyrene collected, increasing from approximately four pieces collected per hour to now almost seven pieces collected per hour.


Polystyrene collection rates per hour over time

These findings highlight the growing concern over polystyrene debris and its fragments entering waterways and causing harm to wildlife. Polystyrene is also recognised as a carrier for hazardous substances in freshwater and marine ecosystems which are often ingested by sea and wetland birds, who mistake polystyrene fragments with fish eggs and crustaceans.

The presence of polystyrene in such significant amounts in South East Queensland is almost certainly a result of local sources, and is most likely coming from roadways, industrial areas, stormwater drains and illegal dumping and littering.


What does the data tell us?

Detailed data collected for over a decade has allowed our team to undertake trend analysis and understand change over time.

The Clean Up Program provides a rich data set which can be used to understand the nature and extent of the litter problem, to inform source reduction strategies and support local communities to undertake targeted actions to mitigate waterway litter pollution.

Community concern about waterway litter has been demonstrated in annual social surveys conducted by Healthy Land and Water which confirm that people consistently rank litter as the number one factor affecting perceptions of waterway health in South East Queensland.

The most recent survey found that even those community members who had no concern regarding local waterway health showed high concern for litter in the environment.


Fast facts:

  • Marine debris is one of the most serious threats facing oceans and coastal areas worldwide.
  • In South East Queensland, approximately 80% of waterway and marine litter comes from land-based sources.
  • Plastic litter does not biodegrade but breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.
  • Nearly 700 species are known to have been affected by plastics which have been found in the stomachs of small fish, turtles, whales and nearly every species of seabird across Australia.
  • Over 30% of sea turtle mortality within Moreton Bay is directly attributed to the ingestion of small remnants of plastic.
  • Over 100,000 items of waterway litter were collected across the 2019/2020 year, largely consisting of lightweight plastic items. This equates to over 17 tonnes of mainly lightweight plastic items collected across the year.
  • Plastic pieces represented the largest number of any item collected with food wraps the second most common item collected closely followed by Polystyrene.
  • There have been significant declines in the number of single use plastic bottles and plastic bags collected from waterways in South East Queensland.


More info: Most common items collected

For the first time in over a decade, plastic pieces are the number one item collected by the Clean Up Program, increasing from three pieces collected per hour in the 2018/2019 year to almost ten pieces collected per hour in the 2019/2020 year.

The graph below shows this trend across the last 13 years of the program, with the last 12 months showing the biggest and most significant growth across this time.

Trend analysis on the number of plastic pieces collected per hour

Food wrap

Over the last several years plastic food wrap has consistently been in the top litter items collected by the Program. Food packaging contributes approximately 17% of total litter loads collected annually by the Program. Trend analysis indicates the number of these pollutants within waterways is continuing to rise.

Food wrap collection rates per hour over time

Funding acknowledgement

Healthy Land and Water’s Clean Up Program has been operating since 1999 and with ongoing funding, will be able to continue to mitigate and address the impacts of waterway litter pollution on our local waterways and marine areas.

Healthy Land and Water gratefully acknowledge the ongoing support of the Australian Government, Brisbane City Council, City of Gold Coast, Logan City Council, Ipswich City Council and Moreton Bay Regional Council in ensuring this important program continues to operate.

This project is supported by Healthy Land and Water, through funding from the Australian Government’s Environmental Restoration Fund.

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