a heap of plastic bottles placed in the shape of a fish with sharp teeth eating a world globe

This year’s World Environment Day theme is beating plastic pollution. This 5 June, the environment will be celebrated in more than 100 countries and #BeatPlasticPollution is the tag that will be used worldwide. Plastic pollution is a global issue – but it must also be tackled with local action. Everyone has a role to play.

The impact of plastic debris on the marine environment is widely known, but the quantity of plastic entering the ocean from waste generated on land is unknown. Jambeck et al (2015) [1] estimated that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. Population and the quality of pollution control and waste management systems are the key drivers that determine which countries contribute the greatest mass of plastic marine debris.

National Geographic video 

A recent study by CSIRO (Hardesty et al, 2017) [2] found that, contrary to popular opinion, most plastic waste we encounter on our coasts is locally generated. Over 90% of plastic particles remain near the shore after a week and most remain within 100 kilometres of the source. Both these studies are sobering, and make the direct connection between our own behaviour and the pollution of our local environments and beaches.

You can find data showing where plastic ends up at Plastic Adrift created by Imperial College LondonGrantham Research InstituteData Science Institute and Climate System Science.

In terms of plastics pollution, Victorians have room for improvement. The state’s population uses an estimated seven billion plastic bags annually. Melbourne Water data is showing steady increases in the amount of litter and debris being collected from the Yarra River. We will include more on this in Victoria’s first State of the Yarra and its Parklands report currently being prepared by the Commissioner's team and due for tabling in the Victorian Parliament early in 2019. Victoria is taking a positive step with action on single use plastics bags. From 1 July 2018, supermarkets will stop giving out free plastic bags in Victoria.


Whilst Victoria is gearing up for greater bans on the use of plastic bags, within the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability Victoria, reporting on the impact of plastic pollution and litter on Victoria’s environment remains an important aspect of our ‘state of’ environmental reporting. Victoria’s inaugural State of the Bays report released in December 2016 looked at the impact of plastics and litter on marine and coastal areas around Port Phillip Bay and Western Port - home to 75% of Victoria’s population. We reported that:  

  • Of the litter found on our beaches, 95% comes from suburban streets through the storm water system.
  • Cigarette butts are the number one item picked up during litter clean-ups and can take up to 12 months to break down in freshwater and up to five years to break down in seawater.
  • The second and third most common found pieces of litter are drink containers and paper.
  • The Victorian Government spends approximately $80 million each year cleaning up litter, with 7,850 tonnes of litter and debris removed just from waterways around Melbourne in one year.

It is important to acknowledge the collective work that is being done to address the issue of plastic pollution as a part of Victoria’s broader litter and waste management strategies. We reported in the 2016 State of the Bays report, “Tackling Litter in the Bays” that in 2012 the Victorian Government announced that they would work in partnership with water corporations to invest more than $1 billion in programs and initiatives that will contribute to improving the health of the Yarra River and the bay. We also included a summary of initiatives such as the Litter Hotspots Program (a project run by the Metropolitan Waste and Recovery Group); the Victorian Litter Action Alliance (which is investing in 14 projects specifically targeting marine and coastal litter); and Sustainability Victoria’s statewide Victorian Waste Education Strategy.

EPA Victoria has a critical role as the environment regulator, in protecting the environment from pollution and litter. EPA issue fines to polluters and often identified by community members and reported using the hotline for pollution and litter events.

As Commissioner, the role and that of the Office is to provide independent advice and reports on the environment to help government, business and the community take practical action. Our reports are based on the science we have which may not always be what we need. An important outcome from this state of the environment reporting cycle has been to commence aligning Victoria’s ‘state of’ environment style reports with international environmental reporting initiatives and improve the efficacy of our collective environmental monitoring and reporting effort. We do that to influence policy and practice for the benefit of the environment and all Victorians.

Improved monitoring and understanding of the impact of plastic pollution on Victoria’s environment is an area my Office will discuss in the 2018 Victorian State of the Environment report which is currently in preparation. A critical aspect of our work, like organisations such as CSIRO, BOMDELWP, EPA, Sustainability Victoria, Parks Victoria and ABS, is to build and share data and knowledge to create greater understanding of the impact of pressures and pollutants on the environment so that everyone has an opportunity to be part of the solution.

CSIRO Tackling Marine Debris

Australian Government Marine Debris http://www.environment.gov.au/marine/marine-pollution/marine-debris

[1] Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan and Kara Lavender Law 2015, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science, Vol. 347, Issue 6223: 768-771.

[2] Britta Denise Hardesty, Kathryn Willis, Qamar Schuyler, TJ Lawson and Chris Wilcox 2017, Assessing the effectiveness of waste management in reducing the levels of plastics entering Australia's marine environment, National Environmental Science Programme, Preliminary Report, Hobart.