A marine ecologist describes what it’s like to find plastic among remote coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific.
“You could be diving and you think someone’s tapping your shoulder but it’s just a bottle knocking against you, or a plastic trash bag stuck on your tank,” Joleah Lamb of New York’s Cornell University told Reuters.
“It’s really sad.”
A study conducted by researchers from several countries, including Australia, and published in the journal Science last week estimates there are 11.1 billion plastic items entangled in coral reefs from Thailand to the Great Barrier Reef.
Researchers surveyed 159 coral reefs and found the most plastic in Indonesia, and the least off Australia, which has tighter waste regulations.
The study said the chance of coral disease increased 20-fold once it became entangled in plastic, due to light deprivation, toxin release, and a lack of oxygen, which gave pathogens a chance to invade.
“With more than 275 million people relying on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural importance moderating disease outbreak risks in the ocean will be vital for improving both human and ecosystem health,” said the researchers, led by Dr Lamb.
In Australia, there is some good news about the move to abate plastic waste. The Keep Australia Beautiful Litter Index, which is the nation’s only long-term survey of litter, found that plastic bag litter was significantly lower in states where they are banned.
Plastic bags are banned in Tasmania, the ACT, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia have vowed to phase them out this year, leaving NSW as the only state without a ban or a plan for one.
Harris Farm Markets has stopped offering single-use plastic bags at the checkouts, the first major retailer to do so, and is encouraging customers to bring their own bag or take a recycled box from the store.
They have also removed plastic packaging from their organic range, and ask customers to bring their own bag or use a muslin bag while shopping in the fruit and vegetable section.
“We see it as our collective responsibility to decrease our environmental footprint given there is still so much that needs to be done to protect our precious environment and marine wildlife,” co-CEO Tristan Harris said.
“We also believe it’s vital the NSW Government enacts a full ban to avoid facing an alarming future.”
A spokesman for Woolworths said it was on track to phase out bags at the checkout by July 1, as it announced last year.
A new store in Beecroft, in Sydney’s north, recently opened plastic-bag free, with enthusiasm from the community, he said.
Coles has also vowed to phase out plastic bags this year, while Aldi has always charged customers for its bags.
Environmentalist Tim Silverwood, the founder of Take 3 for the Sea initiative, which encourages people to take three pieces of rubbish from the beach every visit and bin it, emphasised the need to move away from plastics.
“It’s brilliant there are retailers out there willing to make these changes. Change is hard, but how much more evidence do we need that change is essential?,” he said.
Individuals need to look at their own use of plastic, like bags, bottles and coffee cups, Mr Silverwood said.
“They feel so insignificant sometimes … but it’s a declaration of intent that you don’t want to be a contributor.”