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In just six years, local efforts have reduced plastic waste

We often hear about the large amount of plastic waste that is floating in our oceans. While the global problem of plastic pollution is increasing, Australia’s situation is the opposite.

It is not because other countries are responsible for the majority of plastic waste we find on Australia’s beaches. The study shows that local efforts to manage waste have been successful, with a 29% reduction in coastal litter over the past six years.

The most significant reductions in litter were observed when bins were more easily accessible or when people felt motivated by economic incentives. These actions save people either time or money when they are trying to dispose of their waste properly.

What doesn’t Work? Raising awareness without the tools and infrastructure to support it is not effective. If there aren’t any options, messages and reminders won’t be effective.

Local government can encourage people to properly dispose of their waste by offering incentives. Kathryn Willis

Global issues, local solutions

Plastic pollution is a global problem that threatens the environment as well as human health. The recent signing of the Global Plastics Treaty added momentum to efforts around the world to reduce the estimated 6-12 million tonnes plastic waste that enters our oceans each year.

We still don’t know how to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment without resorting to rhetorical campaigns.

Local governments were the focus of our research to find out what works. As they are usually at the forefront of waste management, councils are in a good position to take on the problem. Councils are responsible for collecting and disposing of waste, as well as dealing with illegal dumping.

We undertook 563 litter surveys across 183 beaches in 32 local governments. From this, we identified actions with the largest effect on reducing coastal litter. Then, we used three established theories of human behavior to try to understand what makes these local actions successful.

We found that the best actions saved people time and money when they tried to dispose of their waste the right way.

In isolation, we found that efforts to reduce plastic litter at local beaches by focusing on personal and social norms within the community failed to reduce plastic litter. This shows that a focus on awareness alone will not be effective. When awareness efforts are combined with tools and infrastructure, they become more effective.

Our coastlines are cleaner because we involve community members directly in cleaning up activities, such as Clean-Up Australia Day or programs that focus on littering and dumping. These programs encouraged people who saw litterbugs to report them through hotlines.

We found that areas where people were encouraged to participate in cleanups had less plastic pollution. Kathryn Willis

Plastics: a new way of thinking

We need to change our relationship with plastic in order to reduce waste across Australia. Plastic will be too valuable to throw away if we stop seeing it as a disposable material and begin to appreciate its value.

The shift from collecting household waste to recycling was one of the most positive changes we witnessed in local government. Local governments and citizens are shifting away from a collect-and-dump mentality to one of reduce, sort and improve.

Most Australian households have three to four bins that separate glass and green waste (often containing food scraps) and papers from general waste and mixed recyclables. The bins make it easy for us to sort and dispose of our waste correctly. They also make it easier for local authorities to generate revenue by separating waste streams.

Read more: Four bins might help, but to solve our waste crisis, we need a strong market for recycled products.

With Australia’s recent ban on waste exports, better waste management holds clear benefits for people, communities, businesses, and the environment.

Take action to tackle litter-prone areas.

We still have a lot of work to do. We have found high levels of litter near major cities as well as along distant coastlines such as the west coast of Tasmania or the Gulf of Carpentaria. The main cause of pollution in remote regions is lost and discarded fisheries gear that washes up.

We can, however, do much more to combat hotspots that are closer to us, like waterways and bushland around major population centers.

Litter found on Australia’s coast. Kathryn Willis

In Australia, litter is more prevalent in areas that are socially and economically disadvantaged, as well as in retail and car parking strips. We find less litter in places we associate with aesthetic and cultural value, such as parks and beaches.

It is interesting to note that economically depressed areas seem to benefit the most from container deposit schemes and economic incentives. These incentives change the behavior of litterers and encourage them to pick up containers that are left around.

We are the primary source of plastics on our beaches. We can change the local situation. Plastics are not a global problem. We can take action locally.

Australia has made rapid progress in this area. We can make better decisions about waste by consulting our local governments and environmental groups.

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Jane S. King

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