Australian Economy

Economic signals boost plastic waste reduction

Economic factors focused on recycling and restricting use of plastics as well as local action were among the most effective ways to reduce plastic waste on Australia’s beaches, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal One Earth, builds upon CSIRO coastal litter survey completed in 2013, and includes 563 new coastal surveys, and interviews with waste managers across 32 local governments around Australia.

Lead researcher Dr Kathryn Willis, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Tasmania, said globally waste control was driven at a local level, so the research focussed on identifying which local government approaches had the greatest effect on reducing plastic pollution found on beaches.

Dr Willis said: “Our research set out to identify the local government approaches that have been most effective in reducing coastal plastics and identify the underlying behaviours that can lead to the greatest reduction in plastic pollution.

“We were really surprised and excited to also find that there was on average 29 per cent less plastic on our beaches than in 2013 when similar surveys were conducted.

“Whilst plastic pollution is still a global crisis and we still have a long way to go, this research shows that decisions made on the ground, at local management levels, are crucial for the successful reduction of coastal plastic pollution.”

Dr Willis said retaining economic-based strategies across the six-year period had the biggest effect on reducing coastal litter.

“More economic waste management strategies led to comparatively cleaner coastlines.”

The study sorted local government waste management actions into three categories of how to prevent poor waste disposal:

  • Economic rationality – actions such as curbside waste and recycling collection, hard waste collections and shopping bag bans reduce local litter
  • Planned behaviour – strategies like recycling guides, information and educational programs, and voluntary clean-up initiatives help reduce coastal litter
  • And crime prevention – waste management strategies such as illegal dumping surveillance and beach cleaning by local governments yield less plastic in the environment.

CSIRO researcher and paper co-author Dr Denise Hardesty said that the research showed how quickly change could happen when effective waste management strategies were deployed.

“For example, household collection services, where there are multiple waste and recycling streams, makes it easier for community members to separate and discard their waste appropriately.

“Our research showed that increases in waste levies had the second largest effect on decreases in coastal plastic pollution.”

The study also showed municipalities that did not update their waste management strategies over time, or who removed their budget for coastal waste management had ‘dirtier coastlines’ over the six-year study period.
However, municipalities that improved information about waste management on their website and increased coastal waste budgetary efforts showed significant decreases in plastic pollution along their coastline.

This research supports CSIRO’s Ending Plastic Waste Mission, which has a goal of an 80 per cent reduction in plastic waste entering the Australian environment by 2030.

Kathryn Willis recently completed her PhD at the University of Tasmania and is now a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Washington. Kathryn’s research was conducted with CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere and supported by the National Environment Science Program’s Marine Biodiversity Hub.

The One Earth paper: Local waste management successfully reduces coastal plastic pollution

Picture: Cleanaway/warehouse recycling

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