Senate Hearing Into Marine Plastic Pollution Hears About Seabirds With Stomachs Full of Plastic

18/02/2016 12:33 PM AEDT | Updated March 16, 2016 12:36
Southern Lightscapes-Australia via Getty Images

Shearwater seabirds don’t have beautiful plumage and they can’t parrot your words, but they are telling scientists a disturbing story about the effect of plastic on Australian marine life.

The plight of these mutton-like birds was told at a senate hearing on Wednesday into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia.

The inquiry was called for by Tasmanian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who bluntly told scientist Dr Jennifer Lavers her work into shearwaters was "pretty depressing".

"I don't know if I'd be able to get out of bed in the morning," Whish-Wilson said.

Indeed Lavers' research along with colleague Dr Ian Hutton on Lord Howe Island suggested 11 percent of juvenile shearwaters were dying as a result of marine plastic -- both from growing with stunted wings as an effect of plastic ingestion right through to death via starvation when their stomach was so filled with plastic, there was no room for food.

Lavers replied to Whish-Wilson: "It is quite confronting work but it’s one of the emerging problems we’re facing right now and certainly someone has to tackle it," Lavers said.

"The birds have a role in this, they have a story to tell and I'm there to tell that story."

Hutton said they'd found pieces of plastic inside shearwaters with clearly visible Australian labels, including corks branded with McWilliams and Penfolds wine and milk bottle tops as well as branded balloon clips.

shearwater lord howe island microplastic

Examination of a dead flesh-footed shearwater on Lord Howe Island reveals deadly plastic fragments.

Horrifying Still is that while research shows plastic ends up inside these birds, it could also be ending up inside our own bodies. ARC senior research associate Dr Mark Browne told the hearing there was evidence microplastic passed into animals' blood streams and muscles, which humans ate.

"You don’t put a hernia mesh or an artificial joint [into a body until it has been thoroughly tested]. We’re not seeing that for products going on the market as packaging," he said.

Indeed one of the focuses of Wednesday's hearing was a question around whether plastic should be classified as a hazardous material.

It was one of many levers suggested as a way of cutting down plastic, as well as a national container deposit scheme, stopping production of some plastics, improved water filtration systems to catch microplastics and systems where plastic packaging would legally be returned to manufacturers or shops.

The hearing received submissions from the likes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the CSIRO, the Total Environment Centre, and Clean Up Australia, with executive chairman Ian Kiernan calling for a container deposit scheme with producers of plastic bottles taking responsibility.

"They do not want to take responsibility for the product they are selling, and they are leaving the responsibility with us," Kiernan said.

The National Environmental Law Association's Ellen Geraghty told the hearing any legislative changes needed to be treated with urgency.

"Really it needs to be add as a matter of priority," Geraghty said.

"We’re starting to see the science now that proves this is an issue. By the time we have more comprehensive scientific information, the problem will have escalated more than it already has."

The hearing is continuing and when adjourned, a report with recommendations will be presented to the federal government.

In the meantime, Lavers said change could start right now in people's attitude to using disposable plastic.

"There’s definitely a societal switch that needs to occur," Lavers said.

"'Disposable' and 'plastic' should never go in the same sentence. It's an oxymoron.

"Only once we transition away from consumption will production go down."

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