Today marks another milestone for Tangaroa Blue Foundation (TBF) and our Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI) partners in our fight against plastic pollution, with the release of the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s National Plastics Plan. The plan aims to increase plastic recycling, find alternatives to unnecessary plastics and reduce the impact of plastic on the environment.
With the inclusion in the National Plastics Plan of our plastic industry source reduction program “Operation Clean Sweep®” (OCS), the loss of plastic feedstock during manufacturing and transportation has now been highlighted at a national level. We hope this acknowledgement will assist in engaging all parts of the industry in this program which aligns with industry best practice and the plastic industry’s social licence to operate.
Operation Clean Sweep® was introduced to the Australian industry in 2015 after TBF gained the support and formulated a unique partnership with Chemistry Australia (CA) to adapt the international program to suit the Australian plastic industry supply chain model.
Operation Clean Sweep® was first introduced to the global plastic industry in 1992 in the USA, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the TBF team started identifying plastic resin pellets (aka nurdles) in large numbers across beaches in the south west of Western Australia. This was at a time when marine debris and the seriousness of plastic pollution was just starting to be recognised both in Australia and globally, through organisations and dedicated individuals cleaning beaches and drawing attention from media and community.
Once nurdles were seen on WA beaches, the AMDI network couldn’t stop finding them, and their occurrence was included in the early TBF Data Collection Sheets. Samples were sent to the International Pellet Watch where the toxins that the pellets had adsorbed while in the water were analysed, and the results were shocking with toxins like DDT – a pesticide that hasn’t been used in decades, turning up consistently in samples from Port Phillip Bay and Sydney Harbour.
The next step was to try and identify their source – was it from local industry or offshore currents? Nurdles are light, buoyant and can float easily, so the only way to find out their origin was to start monitoring for spills in industrial areas. With the help of the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (WA), the first compliance response was initiated in 2013, and factories were issued with field notices to clean up their sites when millions of nurdles were discovered leaching out of factories and into stormwater systems and drainage wetlands in Perth’s industrial areas.
As TBF and the AMDI network expanded nationally, data submitted to the AMDI Database assisted in locating key hotspots and sources of plastic pellet pollution across the country. This led the organisation to create Australia’s first plastic industry source reduction and monitoring program to track to the source, find a solution and start the challenge to influence industry bodies, plastic manufactures, transporters and importers of plastic resin pellets to achieve zero pellet loss throughout their operations.
From 2015, with an initial grant from Melbourne’s Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group and follow up funding with the Victorian Government’s Port Phillip Bay Fund, and philanthropic donations, the Operation Clean Sweep® program developed around the major plastics industry hub of Port Phillip Bay. Our industry partner in Operation Clean Sweep® was Chemistry Australia (formerly PACIA) who not only assisted in developing resources for the program that were relevant to the Australian industry, but to provide a platform to introduce the program through their membership, resulting in our first industry pledges being made.
As part of the program rollout, more than 120 industrial, stormwater, estuary and coastal sites were monitored for plastic resin pellet, chip and flake loss twice a year. In addition to this structured monitoring, AMDI partners around Victoria included plastic resin pellet observational data from their beach and river clean-up events to the AMDI Database to provide a comprehensive picture of these primary microplastics in our environment.
Once the data was analysed Tangaroa Blue Foundation looked to report sources of significant spills to the authorities, which is when we discovered neither the Victorian EPA nor Local Councils were responsible for compliance responses for microplastic pollution, meaning this type of pollution was unregulated.
We acknowledged that engagement with the government compliance authorities would be just as important as engagement of industry partners if we were to be successful in a zero pellet, flake, recycled chip and powder loss goal from both the plastics and logistics industry and supply chain.
Through the data evidence of loss, TBF was able to provide the Victorian EPA with enough industry research to work with local councils towards implementing the framework to fix regulatory gaps and introduce new compliance measures. In 2018, we had a major win, with the Victorian EPA issuing a Guidance on how to handle plastic resin pellets taking the lead role in responding to plastic resin pellet, flake, recycled chip and powder pollution. Working closely with the EPA’s Protection of the Local Environment (OPLEs) Officers, businesses who had been found to be leaching microplastics out of their premises were investigated and notices to implement mitigation measures to prevent further loss were issued.
On July 1st, 2021 (delayed by one year due to COVID-19) new Victorian EPA regulations will be introduced. The biggest change in the regulations from an Operation Clean Sweep® perspective is the introduction of General Environmental Duty, which is an obligation for all businesses (and individuals) to proactively minimise risks of harm to human health and the environment from their activities so far as reasonably practicable. Essentially, businesses will need to demonstrate they have assessed their risks effectively and acted to reduce them appropriately.
We hope these types of preventative regulations will be adopted nationally, meaning industry is held to account before spills and loss occurs.
In March 2020, TBF and CA attended Australia’s first-ever National Plastics Summit with over 200 leaders and experts from government, industry, and community sectors, brought together to identify and showcase new ideas and solutions towards the plastics challenge, and to help inform a National Plastics Plan. At the summit, Chemistry Australia’s Director of Strategy Peter Bury, supported by CEO Samantha Read, presented Operation Clean Sweep® recommending the program be adopted as a national source reduction program for the plastic industry value chain.
“We Did It Together”
With Operation Clean Sweep® included in the National Plastics Plan we now have a holistic framework to deliver plastic pollution reduction strategies from production to consumption.
Samantha Read, CEO of Chemistry Australia, said the Association was delighted to see Operation Clean Sweep® recognised as a key initiative to reduce plastics in our oceans and waterways. “Chemistry Australia has worked closely with Tangaroa Blue and the Operation Clean Sweep® initiative for many years,” said Ms. Read.
“Together, we continue to educate and encourage businesses, through Chemistry Australia member interest group Plastics Stewardship Australia, to prevent plastic pellet loss into the environment by implementing simple and effective improvements to their operations.”
“Together with all our AMDI partners, TBF will continue to search for solutions and educate and encourage businesses, industry, governments and consumers on the adoption of best practice to stop the loss of plastics into our environment.” Heidi Tait, Tangaroa Blue CEO said.
Special thanks to Peter Bury and Samantha Read from Chemistry Australia, Robert Moran Chair of Plastic Stewardship Australia, our nurdle data team who spent countless hours sorting hundreds of thousands of nurdles from stormwater trap samples – some containing over 30,000 nurdles chips and flakes.
A big thank you to the AMDI partners who have been dedicated to supporting change and submitting data to the AMDI Database, you are behind this citizen science success story of a truly unique national source reduction program.
Thanks also to Stan Vermeeren from Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group who managed the grant that supported the initial implementation of the Operation Clean Sweep® program, Felicia Choo from the Victorian Government’s Port Phillip Bay Fund and Tangaroa Blue Foundation’s philanthropic donors who supported the national development and continuation of the project.
A very big acknowledgement to our CEO Heidi Tait, who is the driver to keep Operation Clean Sweep® moving forward so that now, 13 years later, it is recognised by industry and government. You have delivered change to one of the biggest industries and came out the other end of this process with a whole lot of respect. A lesson for everyone that change can happen when there is true collaboration and support to achieve the targeted goal everyone is working towards.
This is what the AMDI is all about – together, gathering data and using the data to drive change.
Next time you purchase an Australian made product whether from new plastic materials or recycled plastic, make sure you check if the manufacturer and their supply chain are part of the solution. If they are not part of Operation Clean Sweep® then they are part of the first point source of plastic pollution entering our environment.
To read the plan, visit: https://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste/publications/national-plastics-plan