Towards a zero litter to ocean policy

Poorly managed stormwater can have a devastating impact on the environment, writes Jeremy Brown

Plastics are now a core element to modern life on Earth, they are used in all sectors from medicine to food and construction and the demand for plastics is steadily increasing. It is estimated that 150 million tonnes of plastic currently resides in marine environments globally and if that plastic is not removed or stopped from entering oceans it will continue to break down into increasingly smaller pieces that are harmful to the environment.

Jeremy Brown

While plastics are a significant issue to our marine environments, major rain events cause pollutants, waste and toxins to flow freely through stormwater drains. Stormwater treatment devices that are not maintained allow even more contaminated wastewater to flow directly to drains and into streams, rivers and oceans.

Currently, there is limited legislation in place for local, state and federal governments to monitor or clean Gross Pollutant Traps (GPTs) on both private lots and public lands. Local councils around Australia do not currently have excess funds in their budgets to clean these overfilled and fermenting traps and this needs to change in hopes of reducing the amount of litter that enters our oceans.

On urban lands larger than 2,000 sqm, there are no regulations that require the mandatory inspection and cleaning of GPTs. This is despite the existence of recycling programs that are committed to ongoing innovation and improvement of the treatment of stormwater assets, by separating rich organic materials for recycling back into markets. In a recent report, it was revealed that they recycle up to 90 per cent of recovered wastes from stormwater assets.

What is a ‘zero litter to ocean’ policy?

A ‘Zero Litter to Ocean’ policy sees a range of initiatives implemented to stop pollutants like plastics, sediments, heavy metals, tyre runoff, cigarette butts and nitrogen being washed down drains and straight into our waterways. The policy includes the rectification, installation and appropriate management of existing and new stormwater treatment assets.

So why should all levels of government adopt and invest in a ‘Zero Litter to Ocean’ policy?

It’s good for the environment

Untreated stormwater continues to have a significant impact on marine environments. The wastewater can eventually lead to toxic algal blooms and build up other pollutants that make their way to waterways. Every hour in Australia, the equivalent of one and a half tonnes of plastics and pollutants are washed into waterways due to ineffective stormwater infrastructure and management.

Sea creatures like fish, turtles and penguins are choking on the plastics and toxic runoff  entering their ecosystems. It is estimated that one prawn caught in Sydney Harbour contains more than the daily limit of toxins and heavy metals that a human should consume in their daily diet. Marine animals are struggling in the current conditions – it is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

The public wants it 

A recent survey conducted by Ocean Protect found that 57 per cent of Australians are not satisfied with the health and cleanliness of our waterways and a further 69 percent said that politicians are not doing enough to protect our waterways.

Governments around the country are certainly not doing enough to protect Australian waterways. The growing public concern for ocean pollution should be enough to convince councils to commit to these targets, and if anything adopting these targets will help to improve the perceptions of government among the Australian public.

It creates jobs in government

One of the most compelling reasons for governments to adopt a ‘Zero Litter to Ocean’ target is the creation of new jobs.  Meeting these targets will require more employees to monitor and clean GPTs. While there will be initial set up costs, this is outweighed by the long term environmental and economic benefits. Local councils that adopt these targets, will be able to give back to their communities by hiring additional staff to maintain these traps in their catchments.

Australians need to call on local, state and federal governments to take this issue seriously and work collaboratively to protect our oceans and waterways. We need legislation to enforce the management of new and existing stormwater treatment assets on both private and public lands.

*Jeremy Brown is Co-Founder of Ocean Protect

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