Local efforts have reduced plastic litter on Australian beaches by nearly 30% in 6 years
It is common to hear of large amounts of plastic waste floating around our oceans. But as the plastic waste problem grows globally, in Australia it is going the other way.
Indeed, most of the plastic waste we find on Australian beaches comes from us, not from other countries. Our new study shows that local waste management efforts have worked, reducing coastal waste by 29% over the past six years.
We found the greatest reductions in environmental waste when it was easier to access the bins or when people were motivated by economic measures. Essentially, these actions save time or money for people trying to dispose of waste properly.
What’s wrong? Raising awareness without tools or infrastructure to support it. Messages and reminders don’t work if there are no options at hand.
These types of local government actions encourage the public to properly dispose of waste through economic incentives. Catherine Willis
Global problem, local solutions
Plastic pollution is a global crisis that harms wildlife, economies and livelihoods. The recent signing of the Global Plastics Treaty has given new impetus to global efforts to reduce the 6-12 million tonnes of plastic waste that enters our oceans every year.
But we still know little about practical ways to reduce the amount of plastic entering the environment outside of rhetorical campaigns to ban plastic.
To find out what works, we focused on local governments. Municipalities are well placed to tackle the problem, as they are usually at the heart of waste management. Councils collect and dispose of our waste while dealing with illegal dumps and waste.
We undertook 563 litter surveys at 183 beaches in 32 local governments. From there, we identified the actions with the greatest effect on reducing coastal litter. Next, we used three established theories of human behavior to try to understand what makes these local actions successful.
Local interventions reduce plastic pollution in the environment. Author provided
In short, we have found that the most successful actions have saved time or money for people and local governments trying to dispose of waste the right way.
We have found that, in isolation, efforts to control plastic litter by targeting personal and social norms in the community have not reduced plastic litter on local beaches. This suggests that a narrow focus on outreach will not work. But when awareness efforts are combined with tools and infrastructure, they become more effective.
Directly involving community members in clean-up activities like Clean Up Australia Day, or landfill and litter-focused programs has also helped keep our coasts cleaner. Such programs encouraged people to monitor and report bedbug behavior through hotlines.
We found less plastic pollution in areas encouraging participation in cleanups. Catherine Willis
Changing the way we think about plastic
To continue to reduce waste in Australia, we need to transform our relationship with plastic. If we stop thinking of plastic as a disposable product and start recognizing its value, it will become something too good to throw away.
One of the biggest positive local government changes we’ve seen has been the shift to collecting different household waste streams and recycling. Local governments and the public are moving away from a collect and dump mindset to a reduce, sort and improve approach.
Many Australian households now have three or four bins to separate glass, green waste (often with food scraps) and paper from their general waste and mixed recycling. These bins not only allow us to properly sort and dispose of our waste, but well-segregated waste and recycling streams make it easier for local governments to generate revenue from garbage.
With Australia’s recent ban on waste exports, better waste management has clear benefits for people, communities, businesses and the environment.
Tackling litter-prone areas
Although litter is now decreasing along our beaches, we still have a long way to go. We have found high levels of plastic near our major cities and along distant coasts, such as the west coast of Tasmania and the Gulf of Carpentaria. Pollution in remote areas is largely due to lost and discarded fishing gear stranded in remote areas.
In contrast, we can do much more to tackle trouble spots closer to home, such as waterways and bush near major population centers.
Common types of litter found along the Australian coast. Catherine Willis
In Australia, we find more litter in socially and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods as well as along our highways and in car parks and commercial areas. In contrast, we find less in areas that we associate with higher aesthetic and cultural values such as beaches and parks.
Interestingly, economically disadvantaged areas seem to benefit the most from container deposit systems and other economic incentives. These incentives appear to alter the behavior of litter and create an incentive to collect containers left in the environment.
It is encouraging to know that we are the main source of plastic on our beaches. We have the power to change what is happening locally. We don’t have to wait for global action on plastics.
On this front, Australia has changed rapidly and for the better. Our local governments and environmental groups can guide us to make informed waste decisions.