Confronting new images have revealed the cost of Australia's obsession with plastic, with appalled scientists recovering hundreds of fragments from the stomachs of fledgling chicks.
Deep in their burrows, hungry shearwater chicks on Lord Howe Island await a meal. Their parents have been scouring the sea in search of fish and squid. Instead, they return to feed their babies clothes pegs, bottle tops and Lego pieces.
After 90 days the fledglings emerge from their burrows, stomachs bulging with plastic. They prepare for their first flight. Many are so malnourished they die outside the nest. Others make it to the beach, but their undeveloped wings flap in vain and waves engulf them.
Ian Hutton, a naturalist and museum curator on Lord Howe Island, pulls the bodies off the beach. Researchers slice open their stomachs to confirm the cause of death. Once, they found 274 plastic fragments.
“It’s so upsetting to think this bird has been reared by its parents, it’s been fed and it should have a chance to go to sea but it’s died,” he said.
‘When you cut the stomach open and pull out the plastic, some people actually cry when they see it.”
The flesh-footed shearwaters embody what the United Nations has called a “planetary crisis” posed by an unremitting tide of marine plastic.
In the few decades since mass production began in the 1950s, plastic waste is overwhelming rivers and oceans – tossed into waterways, carried by stormwater and winds, and lost overboard from boats.
In Australia 1.5 million tonnes of plastic were used in the year to June 2013 - about 65 kilograms for each person. Only 20 per cent was recycled.
Brisbane City Council this week committed to banning plastic straws, single-use plastic bottles and helium balloons from all council events. Environmentalists say other federal, state and local governments can do much more.
Flesh-footed shearwaters are migratory seabirds and listed as vulnerable or rare in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia. Lord Howe Island hosts the largest breeding colony in the world.
Fledglings have ingested everything from toothpaste and pen lids to plastic toys, aerosol tops and fragments that may have once been a shampoo bottle or laundry basket. Some pieces pierce the bird’s stomach. Others leech chemicals into their bloodstream.
Adults spend days at sea collecting food for their young, ranging as far as Sydney and Bass Strait.
University of Tasmania marine eco-toxicologist Jennifer Lavers said the birds “are not picky eaters” and easily tricked by ocean plastic. She said the birds’ numbers are declining due to a range of pressures.
“It’s a funny thing to say but I’d really like to encourage people to see themselves in the bellies of these birds,” Dr Lavers said, in reference to the everyday items they contain.
“Some solutions to our world problems, like climate change, are really tough. We feel we can do little ... but some solutions to world problems really start with the individual at home with the decisions we make.”
NSW Greens MP Justin Field, who travelled to Lord Howe Island this month, said single-use plastic items such as straws or utensils were often unnecessary and could be limited through stronger regulation.
“It is going to require much more than a recycling mentality. It might even include banning single-use plastics,” he said.
“It wasn’t that long ago that food courts had ceramic plates and stainless steel knives and forks. We need to return to that type of thinking.”
Total Environment Centre director Jeff Angel said Queensland is leading Australia through a strong plastic bag ban and container refund scheme beginning this year. Victoria will also ban single-use lightweight plastic bags however NSW has refused to adopt the measure.
A Senate report in 2016 presented 23 recommendations, including developing alternatives to plastic packaging and urgently putting marine plastic pollution on the Council of Australian Government agenda.
The federal government has not responded to the report. It is developing a threat abatement plan to reduce the impact of debris on marine life – a draft version of which Mr Angel described as “unbelievably weak”.
A NSW Environment Protection Authority spokeswoman said the government’s Return and Earn scheme will help meet the state goal of reducing litter volumes by 40 percent by 2020, and 320 million drink containers had so far been returned.
Most major supermarkets will voluntarily phase out lightweight plastic shopping bags this year and NSW was taking part in a national microbead phase-out. The mass release of gas filled balloons is against the law in NSW.
The federal Department of the Environment and Energy said a recent meeting of environment ministers agreed all Australian packaging should be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier, that Australia’s recycling capabilities be increased and waste reduction be encouraged through consumer awareness, education and industry leadership. A national waste policy will be updated this year and government agencies will prioritise projects that convert waste to energy.
This article written by Nicole Hasham was first published in Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 2018