Every day there’s an outdoor event to celebrate or commemorate something or other, and balloons will be released. It looks spectacular for a moment or two, but they’re soon forgotten. What happens to them? Most end up in our seas, where they are eaten by marine wildlife, including seabirds. It sounds frivolous, but it’s become a major conservation problem.
BirdLife Australia has thrown its support behind a campaign by Zoos Victoria and the Phillip Island Nature Parks to shine a spotlight on this issue.
Most people aren’t even aware that the simple act of releasing balloons into the air poses a major danger to wildlife. However, the facts are startling. A CSIRO study found that balloons are in the top three most harmful pollutants threatening marine wildlife – along with plastic bags and bottles.
Albatrosses, cormorants, penguins and pelicans are all affected by this, but of all Australia’s seabirds, shearwaters, or muttonbirds, are the most badly affected when it comes to ingesting plastic debris.
For example, the decline of Flesh-footed Shearwaters on Lord Howe Island has been directly linked to the ingestion of debris, with balloons and their plastic attachments, one of the most prevalent and readily identifiable items found inside them. Further, two separate studies have found that 100% of Short-tailed Shearwaters contain plastic in their digestive systems.
The balloons fill the birds’ digestive tracts while offering no nutrition, and slowly poison them as toxic chemicals leach into the birds’ tissues.
Birdlife Australia is joining Zoos Victoria and Phillip Island Nature Parks to encourage Australians to make their outdoor events wildlife-friendly. The best way to do this is by choosing to use bubbles instead of balloons to reduce this source of harmful waste.
Help spread the word to use bubbles instead of balloons at outdoor events. It’s a simple act but it can make such a big difference.
This information comes from Birdlife Australia.
Good news, a container deposit scheme is going to happen. The NSW Premier announced on 8 May that a scheme based on the Boomerang Alliance’s proposal would be introduced on 1 July 2017. Mike Baird claimed this would be a world-class scheme. The ACT will use the same scheme and Queensland could be on board as well.
This decision will be a major step in reducing the volume of plastic pollution that ends up in our waterways and oceans. The other major source is single use plastic bags. We wrote about this issue in STEP Matters Issue 182.
The Australian government is aware of the problem. On 18 June 2015 the Senate referred the following matter for inquiry and report by April 2016 by the Standing Committee on Environment and Communications.
The threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia and Australian waters, with particular reference to:
- the review of current research and scientific understanding of plastic pollution in the marine environment
- sources of marine plastic pollution
- the impacts of marine plastic pollution, including impacts on species and ecosystems, fisheries, small business, and human health
- measures and resourcing for mitigation
In their report the committee noted that, while there may be the lack of rigor of some of the estimates of the amount of plastic in the marine environment (after all it can only be calculated using some sort of sampling process) they are still sobering: five trillion plastic pieces on the surface of the oceans; eight million tonnes of plastics leaking into the ocean every day – that is the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic every minute of every day of the year.
Not only is this volume of plastic a significant threat to the health of marine life. The committee was considerably alarmed to hear that the potential effect on human health from the ingestion of microplastics in the food chain is only now emerging as an area of research interest. The committee is concerned that there may be a looming health crisis associated with seafood consumption, and urges the prioritisation of research on this issue, and appropriate investment from both government and industry. The committee also considers that microplastics warrant specific focus in strategies aimed a mitigating the effects of marine plastic.
The report called for state and territory bans on plastic bags, an immediate ban on microbeads and the introduction of container deposit schemes across the country by 2020.
There are still many unnecessary waste issues to be addressed such as the so-called flushable wipes that clog up sewerage systems and take away coffee cups. Most of these changes require a change of mindset. The environment needs to be given more priority than convenience.
The impact on marine life from plastic may be most obvious in coastal regions, but in August CSIRO released the results of the first analysis of the threat posed by plastic pollution to pelagic bird species worldwide. The report is published by the National Academy of Sciences of the US.