Senate inquiry told debris a ‘critical problem’ – as it emerges the government has the power to instantly ban controversial microbeads from products
Plastic pollution in the marine environment is a “critical problem” for global ecosystems and for human health as microscopic pieces of waste enter the food chain, an Australian Senate inquiry has been told.
The warning came as Guardian Australia learned the federal health minister has the power to instantly ban controversial plastic microbeads from products like soap and toothpaste without any new legislation, according to official parliamentary advice.
Marine biologist Jennifer Lavers told the first day of the inquiry in Sydney on Thursday that she discovered more than one in 10 young flesh-footed shearwater birds – common visitors to Australian coasts – were dying from ingesting plastic or from plastic chemical contamination. “This would be happening in other species as well,” she said.
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who instigated the inquiry, said the issue of plastic pollution in water was one of the main reasons he got into politics.
“I’ve been a surfer all my life, it’s probably my key passion,” he said. “It’s such a massive problem you don’t even know where to start. But I was determined to get started and that’s one of the reasons I went into parliament.”
A marine microbiologist, Mark Browne from the University of New South Wales, told the inquiry that plastic debris, particularly microplastics, has been recognised as a “critical problem for global conservation and human health” by the UN, European Union, US Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and CSIRO.
Studies have estimated there are now five trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans.
Much of this rubbish accumulates in large ocean gyres, which are circular currents that collect plastics in a particular area. Each major ocean has a plastic-filled gyre.
Large pieces of plastic are known to kill marine life including fish, turtles and birds.
But a particularly harmful form of plastic pollution is microplastic, which cannot be easily seen by eye. Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 1mm that can be consumed by many organisms and then accumulate in the food chain.
Microplastics are created as larger pieces of plastic pollution, like bags and bottles, but slowly break up into smaller and smaller pieces. They are also added directly as “microbeads” to many cosmetics including body washes, soaps and toothpaste to increase their abrasiveness.
In a submission to the inquiry, the Boomerang Alliance pointed to a study from 2014 that estimated seafood consumers in Europe eat up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic each year. Understanding of the effects of microplastics on human health is limited but they are known to deliver toxic chemicals including Bisphenol A (BPA) into the body, which could cause a range of issues including developmental and reproductive problems.
Last year, state ministers agreed to work towards a voluntary agreement to phase out microbeads by July 2018.
But advice to Whish-Wilson from the parliamentary library, seen by Guardian Australia, says the key mechanism that would allow microbeads to be banned in Australia is simply for the minister of health to do so with the strike of a pen. Under the Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act, the minister can list ingredients that are not allowed to be used in cosmetics – including soaps and toothpaste – that are manufactured or imported into Australia.
“It don’t think it’d be a shock to anyone if we banned it but I think it’s something we should do; we don’t need to use these products,” Whish-Wilson told Guardian Australia. “We have been discussing this for a long time and I’m sure industry is well aware that this is coming.”
The Department of Health denied the minister has the authority under that act to ban microbeads, saying it only allows the listing of chemicals, whereas microbeads are “manufactured articles”.
The executive chairman and founder of Clean Up Australia, Ian Kiernan, who was one of the first people to alert the world to the ocean’s rubbish islands, called for a range of other measures including the banning of plastic bags.
Kiernan emphasised the need for container deposit schemes. “Deposit legislation stands out like a flashing light,” he said. “Instead of seeing waste on the beach, you’re seeing money. It’s a great commercial incentive and it will soon disappear. We want deposit legislation.”
Container deposit schemes exist in the Northern Territory and South Australia and are being pursued in Queensland and NSW.
Guardian Australia has approached the Department of Environment for comment.
Read article at The Guardian