Marine Plastic Pollution

Snorkelling on Opal Reef

Marine plastic pollution is a global issue – but it’s also a local one, and so one that you personally can help with. Most marine plastic pollution starts its life on land and in centres of population.

Unfortunately, marine plastic is not restricted by State boundaries, so the plastic pollution that affects the Great Barrier Reef (the ‘Reef’) may have originated from anywhere along the east coast.

Fortunately the same is true of the solutions – what you do at home will also benefit the Reef.

Marine plastic pollution is a more serious problem than many realise, so much so, that the Australian Senate Report of 2016 referred to it as a ‘Toxic Tide’. However, if we take the time to understand the issues, and the impacts, we can see how our personal actions can contribute to solving the problems and lessening the impact in places like the Great Barrier Reef.


Plastic does not ‘go away’. It does not break down by natural processes. Like a ship wrecked on a rock, it simply breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces until it appears to disappear. Only it doesn’t disappear.

When plastics escape into the natural environment, because most plastics float, they find their way into gutters, storm drains and rivers, and finally – the ocean. That’s when they become marine plastic pollution.

Just how much plastic?

Here are some hard facts about the amount of plastic that we have to deal with:

  • About 1.5 million tonnes of plastic are ‘consumed’ each year which equates to approximately 65kg of plastic for every man, women and child in Australia – it’s almost our own weight in plastic.
  • Only 20 per cent is recycled, which means that 80 per cent or 52kg isn’t. That’s one kilo of plastic per person per week that has to be ‘dealt with’.
  • About two per cent of all plastic ‘leaks’ into the environment for one reason or another. Globally, that’s 300,000 tonnes per year.


It’s said that the biggest killer of all marine life on the planet is: the plastic bag. Plastic bags in water look just like jellyfish – a turtle’s favourite food. Unfortunately, turtles usually swallow them whole and so they retain any air that’s trapped inside. Often this extra buoyancy means a turtle cannot dive for food, and so eventually dies. The turtle’s body decomposes, but not the plastic bag – it is simply released back into the ocean to carry on killing.

Seabirds too are impacted, as adult birds inadvertently feed their chicks pieces of colourful plastic they find floating on the ocean. In a recent study, an Australian shearwater chick was found to have over 80 pieces of plastic in its stomach – so many there was no room for anything nutritious.

We might think that being at the top of the food chain, we are somehow immune to the impacts of marine plastic pollution. Unfortunately, as plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, these tiny pieces act like microscopic sponges, and the things they are best at absorbing are the worst kinds of pollutants in the oceans: the heavy metals and toxins. As these smaller pieces of plastic are eaten by marine life, which is then eaten by bigger and bigger marine life, the toxins accumulate and are present in the biggest fish in the food chain – the ones that make it onto our plate.

What can you do?

Reduce your use of single-use

There are plenty of alternatives to single-use plastics: re-useable shopping bags versus the plastic grey ones. Reusable Keep Cups versus single-use plastic-lined takeaway coffee cups and their plastic lids. Sipping from a glass instead of through plastic straws. Reusable Tupperware containers versus single-use take-away containers.

Tomato puree in a glass jar versus a plastic tub with a foil lid. Some of the simplest things you purchase every day contribute to that kilo of plastic per week we each generate. Pick a few personally easy quick wins against single-use items and then banish them from your life forever.

Dispose of your waste securely

Don’t be the person responsible for that ‘leakage’ of plastic that somehow escapes into the environment. When picnicking, or eating out, make sure you take everything away with you. Don’t put waste in an already overflowing bin.

Separate your recyclables properly and don’t put rubbish in the recycling. Set an example and teach your kids too.

Take 3 for the Sea

Once you’ve reduced your own personal contribution and ensured you’re not the one responsible for the leakage, now is the time to help turn the tide on marine plastic pollution.

Take 3 For the Sea is an initiative launched by Australian environmentalist Tim Silverwood. If you’re at the beach and you see some plastic – just pick it up – and put it in the nearest bin. It’s not hard. It could even become habit-forming – and contagious.

We can all help

Marine plastic pollution – though often out of sight – is not ‘someone else’s problem’ or something that we can’t help with. Protecting our turtles, seabirds and marine life – the iconic species of the Great Barrier Reef starts at home with a few positive, mindful steps.

Great Barrier Reef Blog