Call to reduce plastic pollution in our waterways

Friday, 23 March, 2018

Call to reduce plastic pollution in our waterways

The Boomerang Alliance — a collective of 47 Australian community and local government organisations — is calling on the federal government to commit resources to addressing plastic pollution as a matter of priority, in accordance with our international environmental obligations.

The call comes in the wake of a study conducted in the UK by The University of Manchester, which found that microplastics from urban river channels are a major contributor to the pollution problem in the oceans. The results of the study have been published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic debris including microbeads, microfibres and plastic fragments, which enter river systems from multiple sources including industrial effluent, stormwater drains and domestic wastewater. Although around 90% of microplastic contamination in the oceans is thought to originate from land, not much is known about its storage and movements in river basins.

In what is said to be the first detailed catchment-wide study anywhere in the world, researchers examined the microplastics in river sediments from 40 sites across Greater Manchester, including rural streams in the hills and urban rivers in the city centre. They discovered microplastic contamination in all parts of the network — including a site on the River Tame at Denton which had the highest levels so far recorded anywhere in the world.

Following a period of major flooding, the researchers resampled at all of the sites. Levels of contamination had fallen at the majority of them, and the flooding had removed about 70% of the microplastics stored on the river beds. This demonstrates that flood events can transfer large quantities of microplastics from urban rivers to the oceans.

“There is no escaping it,” said Jeff Angel, director of the Boomerang Alliance. “The presence of plastics in our inland freshwater systems magnifies the effects of plastic pollution dramatically. This brings the direct impacts much closer to a significantly larger portion of the global population than previously thought.”

This week, in support of World Water Day, the Boomerang Alliance is asking the government to acknowledge the problem and commit resources to addressing it. Specifically, the alliance claims that the Environment Minister must implement an effective Plastic Pollution Reduction Strategy and take the lead on closing the loop, eliminating waste and stopping plastic pollution at source.

“Despite wide-ranging obligations associated with Australia’s commitments under international law, the Turnbull government continues to defer responsibility for Australia’s waste industry to the states, effectively wiping its hands of the problem,” said Angel.

“Humans need access to safe, clean water for survival, but the more we pollute our oceans and waterways, the less accessible that becomes, placing potentially billions of people at risk. Can we afford to be so reckless with our water supplies?”

Image caption: Rachel Hurley standing by the River Mersey in South Manchester, downstream of a major urban microplastic contamination hotspot. Image credit: Jamie Woodward.

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