A 60kg bundle of plastic that washed ashore at Wooli has highlighted the issue of rubbish being dumped in the ocean by passing ships.
The plastic, which took three people to lift into the back of a ute, was found on a beach at Wooli.
The solid mass of semi-melted plastic was just over one metre long, about 70cm wide, and 70cm high.
National Marine Science Centre director Steve Smith said the waste was believed to be the result of inadequate incineration at sea.
Large vessels passing the Australian coastline are allowed to burn waste, but anything with plastic or plastic residue has to be retained and taken to shore when the ship reaches port.
This is just another example of inappropriate waste disposal at sea,” Professor Smith said.
“It looks like a whole bunch of plastic bags, plastic rope, bottles.
“We are going to investigate further to identify which country of origin it came from, through the writing on the bags.”
Plastic Waste Kills Marine Life
Adjacent to the bundle, a number of Chinese-brand water bottles were found, and Professor Smith said the brand was not available in Australia.
“It’s more evidence that ships passing the coast appear to be dumping waste into our coastal waters,” he said.
The issue is not just a visual problem for people who like a walk or swim unencumbered by rubbish — it also has the potential to kill marine life.
“There’s increasing evidence now that many fish species have plastics in their guts,” Professor Smith said.
“The smaller pieces can actually get through to the tissues, which means we are consuming the plastic as well when we eat fish.
“Plastic bags can smother coral. They can actually land on coral and stop that coral from breathing effectively and kill the coral.”
Rubbish Dumped Into Ocean
Professor Smith said he had seen firsthand the effects of increasing shipping traffic.
“Just past Coffs Harbour where we are based there are about 15 of these large vessels which pass the coast each day,” he said.
“Getting more evidence, and it’s all about the evidence, at the moment we’re speculating that this came off a vessel, so we’re going to cut that bale open and have a look.”
Another project undertaken by the science centre involved collecting plastic bottles along the NSW coastline and identifying where they came from.
Debris washed ashore by ocean currents will generally gather a marine growth on the material within about a week.
Using that as a guideline, Professor Smith said clean bottles that washed ashore were more than likely to have been dumped into the sea fairly recently.
“50% of those [collected] were from overseas and 24% of those were from China,” he said.
“These hadn’t floated all the way from China or overseas. These were clean bottles, they had not come very far.
“The onshore winds drove them to beaches from vessels. We’re 100% confident that’s the source of those bottles.
“We’re now hoping that federal government agencies, with this information, can start to do something about it.”
Waste From Ships a Growing Problem
A leading Australian environmental foundation agreed that waste from ships was a growing issue.
Brad Gray from Planet Ark said global research revealed an estimated 20% of marine debris was likely to come from ships.
Mr Gray said over the years regulations had been gradually tightened about what can be thrown overboard, but more needed to be done.
“A lot of the focus on waste coming out of ships, particularly cruise ships, has been things like human waste, the sewerage system just dumping out to sea and food scraps and such,” he said.
“But increasingly as we are becoming more aware of the plastics issues we are looking more and more at where they are coming from and what the impacts of those are.”
Mr Gray said rules frequently got broken.
“Ships that are operating well won’t be doing those things because they will be following the regulations,” he said.
“But the fact that ships are out to sea for a very long period of time means that they could conceivably not be doing the right thing, and it would be quite hard for a regulator to know some of that stuff.”