Beaches in Sydney are heavily contaminated with microplastic.

My daughter Lily, had to do a school science assignment and chose to examine microplastic on Sydney Harbour beaches. We thought that would be interesting. It turned out to be shocking.

Lily decided to base her school science assignment on the Australian Microplastics Assessment Project. AUSMAP is a nationwide citizen science initiative led by Dr Michelle Blewitt, from Total Environment Centre, and Dr Scott Wilson, from Earthwatch and Macquarie University. The methodologies aligned well.

Basically, you lay out a frame and collect a depth of sand from the beach, then spend tedious hours sieving and tweezing plastic out of the mix. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in length. Lily only measured pieces down to 1 mm, but microplastics get very small. Obviously, the smaller you sample the more you find as microplastics continually break down with exposure to the environment.

The findings from AUSMAP in the Sydney region cover the following areas: Manly Cove with 4051 pieces of microplastic a square metre, Tower Beach Botany with 4312 pieces a sq m, Athol Beach Mosman with 1052 pieces and Cabarita with 1000.

Australian Microplastics Assessment Project (AUSMAP), is a nationwide citizen science initiative run by Dr Scott Wilson from Macquarie University.

Lily decided to sample six beaches along the Parramatta River to Sydney Heads – Putney, Cabarita, Rodd Point, Hunters Hill, Whiting Beach and Camp Cove.

On every beach she found macro plastic litter – paddle pop sticks, plastic bags, drink containers and more. But the real shocker was the amount of microplastic in the sand.

Even limited to 1-5mm pieces, Lily found 700 pieces of microplastic a sq m at Whiting Beach and 400 a sq m at Cabarita. The lowest contamination rates were at Rodd Point and Camp Cove.

Why? The science suggests that microplastics are washed downstream from industry and our homes; they float around in the harbour and eventually get washed out to sea or swept onto certain beaches by the prevailing wind and currents. Whiting beach for example faces south and is battered by south easterly prevailing winds. It has the longest fetch (distance over which wind can flow uninterrupted) meaning more plastic can be blown towards it. But the science is not clear yet. More data is required. (So, if your kids want a cool science experiment, think about joining AUSMAP).

“How [nurdles] can escape from plastic moulding businesses and other users, is beyond me”

What astounded me was the number of nurdles. These are the precursor pellets from which you make plastic products. These are manufactured products made out of virgin or recycled plastic. They are purchased by plastic manufacturers to make things. They are valuable.

There were thousands of them. Why are so many floating around Sydney Harbour and washed up on our beaches? There have been some major spills such as in May 2021 when the MV X-Press Pearl spilt 1680 tonnes of nurdles off the coast of Sri Lanka but, how they can escape from plastic moulding businesses and other users, is beyond me. It is impossible to tell how old they are. They could have been there for decades. The EPA has a lot of work to do here.

Nurdles are the precursor pellets from which you make plastic products.

Also, there were plenty of plastic fibres and broken bits of plastic products. Dr Wilson finds more because he samples these smaller pieces.

It was not good to see pollution of this kind right in front of you.

The long term impacts of microplastic are not known. But each of us ingests about a credit card worth of microplastic every week, according to research by the University of Newcastle and WWF.

Who knows what that is doing to our health? The University of Queensland has just announced that it has set up a lab to develop ways to detect and measure nanoplastics particles in the human body.

Surely, we can do better.

We must not accept littering, dumping of waste, and industrial spillage. We must ban microbeads (a lot of industry has removed microbeads from personal grooming products, but they are still produced, imported and sold). We need to mandate that washing machines have microfilters to capture microplastic from clothes. We must get real about pollution. We need to implement the new international treaty on plastic pollution.

The first thing we need to do is support governments to increase the penalties for pollution. They are constrained by the need for public endorsement. We need to give it to them.

Singapore has a lot lower littering rates than Australia. Here is a comparison of like-for-like penalties. (The currencies are similar, so I have provided it in Australian dollars and rounded).

  • littering – First offence by an individual in Singapore is $A2000; Second offence $A4000 and Third offence $A10000). NSW is $A80-250. 
  • disposal of waste from a vehicle in Singapore is up to $A50,000 (or up to 1 year in jail). NSW is $A250-500.
  • Illegal dumping – Singapore $A50,000 first offence. Second offence is $A100,000 and a mandatory jail sentence of up to 1 year. NSW $A7500-15,000.

You get the picture. We can, and must, do better.

This stuff just accumulates and if it is bad now, it will be worse in the future.

Mike Ritchie is MD of MRA Consulting Group. He was national vice president and NSW President of the Waste Management Association of Australia. He was chair of the National Carbon Committee, Advanced Waste Treatment Committee and a member of the Resource and Energy Recovery Committee. He has been a senior manager of local government, Visy, Waste Services NSW and SUEZ. He is currently a member of Australian Council of Recycling, Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association, and is a member of the Institute of Company Directors.

Updated 14 April: Each of us ingests about a credit card worth of microplastic every week, rather than each year.

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