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Responding to national challenges

Changing the way we make, use, recycle and dispose of plastics

  1. Revolutionising packaging and waste systems: recycling, reusing, redesigning and eliminating plastic packaging through better design, materials and logistics.
  2. Behaviour change and incentives: generating value for plastics through fundamental changes in human behaviour.
  3. Waste innovation: applying circular economy principles to generate effective solutions for plastics recycling and reuse across the supply chain, including niche industry solutions, decision support systems, sustainable textiles, and developing value-added products and feedstock from waste plastics.
  4. Supporting best practice and standards: advising on the development and implementation of standards to support business, industry and the public in reusing and recycling plastics, including guidance of recycled plastic content to ensure food security and reduce waste.
  5. Information for decision making: applying analytical approaches, AI/ML capabilities and sensor technology to quantify predict hotspots, applying knowledge to inform policy decisions.

We are working with a range of partners including Chemistry Australia, Microsoft, New South Wales State Government, Ocean Protect, City of Hobart, Standards Australia, the Indonesian-Australian Plastics Innovation Lab and the SPath-Australia-India Plastic Waste reduction program.

We're on a mission to end plastic waste

Our mission has a goal of an 80 per cent reduction in plastic waste entering the environment by 80 per cent by 2030. 

We are the national catalyst to tackle plastic pollution. Our aim is to change the way we make, use, recycle and dispose of plastic. Our science and technology is supporting government and industry initiatives to eliminate litter and divert plastic waste into a resource to build Australia’s circular economy.

Our capabilities

A national effort to reduce plastic pollution.

  • Data analytics – creating new data collection and sampling strategies, plus using advances in data analytics to process large amounts of data and establish baselines of plastic leakage.
  • Machine learning - our artificial intelligence capabilities can be used to build large-scale sensor networks or conduct autonomous visual detection and analysis of plastic debris.
  • Biological catalysts – we are working with enzymes that can be used to break down plastics and reduce environmental contamination.
  • Waste to energy – our work considers how to use plastics at end of life as a feedstock for energy production.
  • Behavioural science – we have researchers focused on social questions, like, how to incentivise better waste management or where to put technological solutions that also inspire community action.
  • Environmental economics – we are studying the financial impacts of changes (or lack thereof) in the plastics supply chain.
  • Materials science – we recognise the importance of plastic polymers and identifying recycling options and new bio-materials that could be less destructive to the environment.

Sources, distribution, and fate of marine debris

Our leading science

How much debris is there?

Within Australia, approximately three-quarters of the rubbish along the coast is plastic. Most is from Australian sources, not from overseas, with debris concentrated near urban centres. The density of plastic ranges from a few thousand pieces of plastic per square kilometre to more than 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre.

Impact on marine wildlife

Globally, approximately one third of marine turtles have likely ingested debris, and this has increased since plastic production began in the 1950s.

Around the world, nearly half of all seabird species are likely to ingest debris. Balloons are the marine debris item that has the highest chance of killing seabirds if eaten, and 43 per cent of short-tailed shearwaters have plastic in their gut.

We predict that plastics ingestion in seabirds may reach 95 per cent of all species by 2050. Recent research shows that it takes only one piece of plastic to kill a turtle.

Marine wildlife entanglement

Seabirds, turtles, whales, seals, dolphins, dugongs, fish, crabs and crocodiles and numerous other species are killed and maimed through entanglement.

We estimate that between 5,000 and 15,000 turtles have been killed in the Gulf of Carpentaria after becoming ensnared by derelict fishing nets, mostly originating from overseas.

Watch: How can we solve the ocean plastic crisis?

Our researchers are investigating the relationship between humans and our environment, with a focus on sources and amounts of plastics around Australia and the world.

We've worked with schools, communities, industry groups and government to address everyone's role in solving this problem.

[Music plays and an image appears of an aerial view of a stretch of coastline with a white sandy beach and then text appears: Marine Resources and Industries, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, How can we solve the ocean plastic crisis?]

[Image shows an aerial view of person picking up rubbish on a beach then camera zooms in to show the person picking up rubbish on a beach and then camera zooms in to show rubbish in her hand]

Dr Denise Hardesty: No matter where you are in the world, on the cleanest of beaches, in the city, the most remote area, you’re always going to find our trash. It’s everywhere that we go.

[Images move through to show Dr Denise Hardesty talking to camera, an aerial view of a stretch of coastline with a white sandy beach, and plastic bottles in dirty water and text appears: Dr Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Marine Debris]

And my career, my job now is really focussed on looking at the relationship between humans and our environment, particularly focussing on plastic pollution.

[Images move through of Denise talking to a class, Denise working with volunteers on a beach, men collecting samples from a boat, an underwater view of sample collection, and rubbish being analysed]

One of the big projects that we had was in 2011 to 2014 where we secured funding to do a national survey around the entire continent of Australia and we were looking at the sources, the amounts, the types of plastic pollution around the entire country.

[Images move through to show TJ Lawson talking to camera, TJ talking to students in a classroom, students walking on the beach, and Denise working with volunteers on beach and text appears: TJ Lawson, Spatial Analyst]

TJ Lawson: Another part of that project was to engage the community and with that we went and spoke to school kids. We had teachers come on expeditions and we spoke to some members of the public about the work.

[Images move through to show a close up view of students showing each other pollution samples collected, analysing rubbish, and a teacher working with students in a classroom]

Dr Denise Hardesty: By the end of the project we’d worked with over 7000 schoolkids as citizen scientists.

[Image changes to show Denise talking to the camera]

We analysed the data, we published a series of papers and that attracted a lot of attention from the media and from industry and Government partners who are interested in understanding their role in addressing the plastic pollution issue.

[Images move through to show a photo of Trish at a podium, and then Trish talking to camera]

Trish Hyde: In my time as CEO of the Australian Packaging Covenant we had a problem to address. How does a piece of packaging go from the land into the water and become pollution?

[Images move through of an Economic Resource map, a Log Debris Count map, and Trish talking to camera and text appears: Trish Hyde Managing Director, The Plastic Circle]

We partnered with the CSIRO and their research helped us build a strategic approach to address the problem.

[Images move through to show a white sandy beach, Denise on the beach talking to camera, and Kathy and a colleague taking and comparing measurements on a beach]

Dr Denise Hardesty: One of the really exciting opportunities in the work that I do, is the chance to mentor the next generation and Kathy Willis is one of the students that I’ve been lucky enough to work with.

[Images move through to show Kathy talking to camera, Kathy and a colleague taking and comparing measurements on a beach, and a highlighted map of local councils with survey sites and text appears: Kathy Willis PhD Candidate]

Kathy Willis: Building on work done by a student in 2013, I’m about to visit 40 local councils around Australia. At each of these councils we’re running beach transects to measure how much plastic pollution is on their beaches. We’re then going to interview the waste managers at each of those councils.

[Image changes to show a plastic pathway flow chart with different sections highlighted and then changes to show Kathy talking to the camera on the beach]

So, with this data we’ll be able to analyse and compare how waste management has changed from 2013 to now 2018.

[Images move through to show a screen scrolling through CSIRO’s Global plastic losses article, and then volunteers measuring pollution in various places including beaches, rivers and inland areas]

Dr Denise Hardesty: Our new global plastics project is focussing primarily in the South East Asia region at the moment and there we’re building capacity with on ground partners in the countries and we’re collecting data along rivers and inland areas along the coastline and out at sea.

[Image changes to show Denise talking to camera on the beach]

And with these country partners we’re developing a global baseline of plastic waste and leakage from land out into the ocean.

[Image changes to show volunteers’ written findings, and then changes to show TJ talking to camera, and then changes again to show a map of Total Count Model adjusted for sampling]

TJ Lawson: The volunteers are collecting the data for us and they’re now sending it back to us and my job is to assimilate all that data and pass it on to the other team members for analysis.

[Images move through to show Denise talking to the camera, and then changes to show people listening in a classroom]

Dr Denise Hardesty: This is some of the most exciting research I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. People care about this plastic pollution issue.

[Images move through of Denise working with a group of volunteers, Denise talking to camera, and then students collecting samples on a beach, and the camera zooms in on two of the students]

It’s something that resonates with people, whether it’s industry, Governments, private citizens. And the science that we’re carrying out is answering people’s questions on how we all together can help resolve the plastic pollution issue.
[Music plays and text appears on a blue screen: Interviewees, Dr Denise Hardesty, TJ Lawson, Trish Hyde, Kathy Willis.]

[Text appears: Additional Footage Supplied by, Earthwatch, Sandra McPherson, Trish Hyde.]

[Text appears: For more info debris.]

[CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO Australia’s innovation catalyst.]

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