Litter is a serious pollution issue that affects our waterways, coastline and ocean – impacting on wildlife, human health and the marine environment.
A community survey conducted by Healthy Waterways in March 2011 revealed most South East Queensland residents consider rubbish and litter as the most important factor that negatively impacts waterway health.
In 2005, it was estimated that 7 billion tonnes of litter and waste debris enters the world’s oceans annually and most of this comes from the land. Plastics, particularly packaging, create up to 99% of this debris. Rivers, streams and stormwater drains transport litter hundreds of kilometres to the ocean where currents and winds then carry them all over the world.
In 1997, Charles Moore and his crew discovered what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This concentrated area of marine debris located in the North Pacific Ocean is a result of currents from the North Pacific Gyre. The patch is estimated to be between the size of Victoria and Queensland.
To address the issue of waterway litter in SEQ, Healthy Waterways Clean Up Program collects litter from the waterways while our region wide Clean Up Campaign and aims to raise public awareness and the Plastic Pollution Revolution encourages a commitment from community members to reduce their plastic footprint.
Impacts on wildlife
Litter and marine debris in waterways pose a major threat to marine life. The main impacts on our wildlife include:
- Ingestion: Wildlife eat bottle caps, cigarette butts and lighters, fishing line, and a host of other objects. Ingestion of litter can cause marine wildlife to feel full, leading to starvation. Hard plastics and fishing hooks can also rupture internal organs.
- Entanglement: plastic debris can cause drowning, suffocation, strangulation, starvation and injuries including lethal cuts and wounds. Australian Seabird Rescue estimates that 94.04% of pelicans rescued suffer from fishing tackle hooking or entanglement.
- Nearly a million seabirds are thought to die from entanglement or ingestion of floatable material each year (United Nations Environment Program).
- In Moreton Bay, threats to turtles include discarded fishing equipment and litter. Fishing tackle, fishing line, crab pots, ropes and plastic rubbish result in injuries or death from infection, amputation, choking and drowning. Entanglement in crab pots and loose ropes account for around 20 reported turtle deaths each year.
Pelican swallowed fishing line
Environmental, social and economic impacts
- Toxicity – plastic debris fragments can accumulate and transport persistent organic pollutants (POP) and carry them into the marine food web. Some POPs are highly toxic and there is now a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from these chemicals.
- Alien hitchhikers – marine debris can travel very long distances, taking invasive species from habitat to habitat which is a significant threat to aquatic biodiversity.
- Ghost netting – ghost nets are fishing nets that have been lost accidentally, deliberately discarded, or simply abandoned at sea. Considered as perpetual “killing machines” that never stop fishing, they impact on the sustainability of already stressed fisheries.
- Expensive clean ups – litter collection and street sweeping cost local governments millions of dollars each year. Once litter reaches our waterways, it is very difficult to clean up.
- Degraded aesthetics – litter is one of the most visible kinds of environmental degradation. It destroys the natural beauty of beaches, riverside parks and recreational waterways.
- Human health and safety – litter such as broken glass, syringes, smouldering cigarette butts and personal hygiene products present human health and safety risks.
- Fishing and navigation – litter in nets, catches contaminated by litter, fouled propellers and blocked intake pipes are a major cost to fishing and boating industries.