Friday, April 25, 2014

JCU studies impact of plastic waste on marine life

Plastics choke our marine life—but is the message getting through?

A new James Cook University project is helping assess whether we are winning the war on informing people about plastic waste and its devastating impacts on the marine environment.

JCU Environmental Sciences
JCU tells the world how plastics are devastating marine environments (Photo: Mike Ball Dive Expeditions)

JCU researchers are conducting surveys, both in person and online, to help gauge people’s attitudes toward disposing of materials, plastics in particular, and its impacts on tropical ecosystems.

Associate Professor Mark Hamann, from JCU’s School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, said marine debris was a key conservation issue for tropical environments and a threat to many species, especially marine turtles.

“The challenge is to find effective ways to change human behaviour with regard to the consumption and disposal of debris, especially plastics,” Associate Professor Hamann said.

“Social marketing offers frameworks and processes to encourage this kind of human behaviour change.

“The project will generate data that can be used in the development of more effective behaviour change programs in environmental protection.”

Associate Professor Hamann said the issue of marine debris had been identified by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Federal Department of Environment and Water Resources as both a key conservation issue for tropical marine ecosystems and a major threat to species including marine turtles and dugongs.

“The use of social marketing to address sustainability issues is growing and is particularly focused on linking the business sector and consumers to a range of environmental and social issues,” he said.

The project is designed to help develop effective social marketing campaigns within the tourism sector in tropical Australia focused on wider aspects of environmental protection.

“Over recent years, the problem of marine debris, specifically plastic pollution, has become a prominent issue concerning many government agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGO), and scientific communities around the world.

“As productivity and consumer buying continues to increase, the amount of plastic that makes its way into the marine environment also continues to rise at an alarming rate. As such, marine debris is now a ubiquitous problem worldwide.”

Associate Professor Hamann said synthetic marine debris such as plastic was increasingly recognised worldwide as significant risk for many types of marine wildlife.

“Although plastics have only existed for just over a century, by 1988, thirty million tons of plastic were produced annually, and their versatility has rapidly caused them to become a part of everyday life in developed countries around the world.

“As plastic has become more prevalent in society and new uses have developed, the quantity of plastic debris entering the marine environment has undergone a corresponding increase.

“Solutions to plastic pollution need to start with changes in consumer behaviours including selecting products with less plastic packaging, avoiding single-use plastic items, and more careful disposal of rubbish.”

Associate Professor Hamann said traditional government and NGO responses in this area had relied heavily on information delivery and public education campaigns.

“Information is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for behaviour change. Persuasive strategies such as social marketing have proven to be more successful than solely information-based strategies.”

The project involves three stages, starting with a survey conducted in key locations in the Townsville region to collect data from local residents and tourists.

It will measure awareness of, attitudes towards, and actions related to marine debris, threats to marine turtles and consumer behaviour related to plastics.

The research has been conducted with the support of Reef HQ Aquarium Turtle Hospital and SeaLink.

JCU School of Earth and Environmental Sciences

The School of Earth & Environmental Sciences (SEES) is a leading research entity in JCU, and plays a vital role in maintaining and enhancing the university’s international profile.The school’s strategic intent is to be the top research and education centre for the study of earth and environmental sciences in the tropics, and to provide high-quality, internationally competitive courses that reflect the unique environment represented by northern Australia and the southwest Pacific region. To this end, the school aims to expand knowledge and understanding of the Earth’s complex systems, its natural resources and human interaction with the physical and biological environment, to promote responsible Earth stewardship.

The major research and teaching disciplines:
  • Economic Geology and Mineral Exploration
  • Environmental Earth Sciences
  • Environmental Sciences and Natural Resource Management
  • Fisheries Science and Management
  • Geography and Spatial Sciences
  • Geology, Geodynamics and Tectonics
  • Tropical Urban and Regional Planning


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