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Measuring Australia's progress towards eliminating plastic pollution: reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals

A national citizen science network is vital to monitoring trends of plastic pollution across Australian beaches.

Every day an estimated 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans, rivers, and lakes. Plastic entering the environment can alter habitats, harm already threatened species and cause a wide range of impacts to society, the economy and human health by disrupting the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of people.

Tackling plastic pollution requires international collaboration to limit the continued release of plastics into the ocean while dealing with those already within the environment. In May 2020, the UN Environmental Assembly made history when they agreed to develop a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. International negotiations are currently underway to shape and define the treaty, with the first draft released on Monday September 4. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically Goal 14, also recognise the need to reduce plastics within the marine environment.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

  • The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (est. 2016) outlines 17 SDGs to be achieved by 2030 (E/CN.3/2016/2/Rev.1) along with a framework of 230 indicators and targets which are used to measure progress towards the SDGs.
  • While SDG 14.1 specifically refers to ‘marine pollution of all kinds’, plastic debris can also come under SDGs 6.3, 12.4 and 12.5, which refer to improving water quality by reducing pollution, managing chemicals throughout the lifecycle, and reducing waste, respectively.
  • Reporting on these indicators requires an extensive database of information across the full life cycle of plastics and spanning many years.

Australia and the use-case for citizen science

The indicator for SDG 14.1.1b is specifically related to the density of plastic debris across all marine environments including plastics on the seafloor, in the water column, ingested by biota and washed onto beaches. It is important to note that even with this wide range, this indicator does not represent the density of plastic debris globally; for example, terrestrial environments are not reported. Despite its usefulness in indicating the levels of plastic contamination in marine environments, few countries have reported on this SDG Indicator. Many research and government programmes often collect data for a large area, or repeatedly sample specific areas (e.g. annually), but often do not have the resources to do both.

There is an opportunity to partner with initiatives that conduct coastal and estuarine clean-up activities, specifically those that go the extra mile in collecting and classifying the plastic found. These volunteers, organisations and their partners (e.g. universities or government) form “citizen science communities” and collect data that could prove crucial in uncovering the current state and trend of plastic pollution.

Australians have a deep connection with the ocean. The potential impact of marine plastic has led to its recognition as a ‘Key Threatening Process’. More recently, Australia has developed a "National Plastics Plan” to move towards a circular economy and reduce plastic pollution, with State Governments following suit, announcing their own plans with complementary goals to accelerate progress.

Australia is fortunate to have the Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI) Database which is the largest citizen science database of marine debris in the Southern Hemisphere. The initiative, managed by the Tangaroa Blue Foundation (TBF), has the potential to support SDG reporting as it contains data collected:

  1. Nationally,
  2. Regularly on the same beach (sometimes even monthly), and
  3. Using specific methods and categories that allow us to compare across Australia.
Figure 1: Process of using citizen data from the Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI) Database to report on SDG indicators for plastics in Australia and by Natural Resource Management (NRM) regions.

This study

Since 2004, over 1400 organisations and individuals have submitted records of their clean-ups into the AMDI Database. As of May 2023, it contains records of over 31,000 clean-up and monitoring activities, documenting more than 22 million debris items.

Using AMDI data from 2014 to 2019, the Sustainable Development Reform Hub from UNSW Sydney collaborated with the Tangaroa Blue Foundation to produce the SDG Indicator for plastic pollution across Australia. The team calculated the number of plastic items per square meter on sandy beaches facing the open ocean (i.e. not facing an estuary or river) across Australia and Natural Resource Management (NRM) regions (these are regions of Australia distinguished by land-use and governed by NRM regional bodies and plans).

The study revealed:

  • Plastics averaged from 0.155 to 0.279 plastic items per square meter across Australia
  • Greater densities in specific NRMs could be related to larger populations (e.g., Greater Sydney) or plastic arriving from the ocean (e.g., Cape York)
  • Plastics were less dense in remote areas (e.g., Northern Territory, Northern Agricultural Region, and Rangeland Region).

Between 2014 and 2017, the average density of plastic on Australian beaches increased. However, by 2019, density had decreased and returned to levels below those observed in 2014. This could be due to several extreme weather events, including tropical cyclones and flooding across Queensland and NSW in 2017 and 2018, which likely led to increased currents and the accumulation of debris. The observed decrease in the density of debris does not indicate that the quantity of plastic waste in the environment was reduced, only that the amount of debris reaching beaches had decreased; debris is still likely to be impacting the marine environment elsewhere. These findings highlight the dynamic nature of plastic pollution and the need for long-term monitoring.

Australia has announced ambitious policies and plans to combat plastic pollution. However, the majority of interventions occurred after the study period, such as the implementation of single-use plastic bans post-2019, with further bans on various plastic items planned over the next two years until 2025. The estimates from the study allow us to identify plastic "hotspots" and where to conduct interventions and further research. The AMDI data is ongoing, providing the opportunity for future studies to investigate the effectiveness of recent interventions.

Next steps

The study provides a first attempt to produce the SDG Indicator on plastics for Australia and to track how it has changed over time. Using data from citizen science, the indicator could continue to be produced, allowing Australia to track plastics and their potential impacts to the environment. This could be done by:

  1. Raising the awareness of SDG Indicators for management and decision making,
  2. Strengthening engagement between the citizen science community and government institutions responsible for SDGs (e.g., Australian Bureau of Statistics), and
  3. Improving dialogue with stakeholders at the National and State level.

Such collaborations between a National Statistics Office and citizen science initiatives have already proven successful in Ghana and New Zealand. In fact, through a dedicated initiative (CS4SDGs), Ghana became the first country to report on SDG Indicator 14.1.1b using citizen science data (Olen, 2022). If Australia harnesses the power of available citizen science, we can track progress towards targets for reducing plastic pollution and, in turn, safeguard our marine environments.

The use of citizen science models can be expanded beyond just those SDGs related to plastics. If NGOs and others collect and store data using a standardised method, this data could be used to report on other indicators and progress towards SDGs. For this to work, governments must also be open to such approaches.

Authors: Bella Charlesworth, Communications Officer, Jordan Gacutan, Research Associate and Lincoln Hood, PhD Candidate; Sustainable Development Reform Hub; Tangaroa Blue Foundation.