Does around nine million tonnes of plastic rubbish flow into the ocean each year?

By Louise Evans and James Lane

The Statement

"Around nine million tonnes of plastic rubbish ends up in the ocean every year."

Kerryn Phelps, Independent NSW MP for Wentworth. May 13, 2019.

The Analysis

During a live blog with readers of the Wentworth Courier, Kerryn Phelps was asked how she, as an independent, could help address Australia’s long-standing waste and recycling crisis. Dr Phelps said her solutions included a packaging law, which Germany recently introduced, that could reduce plastic waste by 40 per cent in the first year. [1]

AAP FactCheck examined Dr Phelps’s claim that around nine million tonnes of plastic rubbish ends up in the ocean every year.

Dr Phelps was elected as the member for Wentworth in NSW in an October 2018 by-election following the resignation of former sitting member and Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Previously she’d worked as a medical doctor from 1981-2019 as well as a health commentator and writer. She was also a Sydney councillor from 2016-2019 and Sydney deputy lord mayor 2016-2017. [2]

Wentworth is in Sydney's eastern suburbs and takes in some of the country's most exclusive and expensive real estate including Bondi, Double Bay and Paddington. It’s named after one of the early champions of colonial conservatism William Charles Wentworth. The seat of Wentworth was a conservative bastion from 1901-2018 until the departure of Mr Turnbull who’d held the seat since 2004. Dr Phelps’ biggest challenger is once again Liberal candidate and former diplomat Dave Sharma. [3]

Wentworth is considered an “ultra marginal” seat which Dr Phelps holds with a slim margin of 1.2 per cent. Internal Liberal polling suggests the economy, housing affordability, cost-of-living and climate change, in that order, are the biggest election issues in Wentworth. [4]

The top two policies listed on Dr Phelps’ website are climate change and the environment.

Plastics is the top issue under environment and states “if we fail to clean up the plastic and don’t stop the continued pollution of the oceans, we are facing the potential extinction of many sea life species and the interruption of the entire marine ecosystem as well as a depletion of our precious food stocks”. [5]

A spokesperson for Dr Pehlps told AAP FactCheck the source of her claim that “around nine million tonnes of plastic rubbish ends up in the ocean every year” was based on data in an open letter sent to politicians from Ocean Protect, calling for action on ocean plastic pollution.

The May 2019 Ocean Protect letter states “each year at least eight million tonnes of plastics flow into the ocean”. Ocean Protect is a stormwater infrastructure company which campaigns on reducing ocean pollution. [6] [7]

Ocean Protect told AAP FactCheck its reference for the eight million tonne figure came from a 2017 report into a no-waste plastics economy presented at the Davos World Economic Forum by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The 2017 report states “at least eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean each year”. “This is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute. Estimates and expert interviews suggest packaging represents the major share of the leakage,” the 2017 report states. [8]

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a UK-based charity launched in 2010 to “accelerate the transition to a circular economy”. Dame Ellen MacArthur is an English sailor who set a world record for the fastest solo global circumnavigation in 2005. She campaigns against ocean pollution and plastic waste. [9] [10]

AAP FactCheck found the figure of eight million tonnes of plastic in the ocean dated back to 2010 data published in a 2015 study led by University of Georgia environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck and published in the journal Science. The purpose of the 2015 study was to conduct a global estimate of plastic in the ocean. It was calculated by a scientific working group that included oceanographers, marine ecologists, solid waste experts, statisticians, industrial ecologists, polymer scientists and engineers. They calculated the amount of waste plastic generated in 192 countries with coastlines on the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and the Mediterranean and Black seas using data on regional manufacturing and waste management practices. [11]

The researchers estimated people added eight million tonnes of plastic to the ocean in 2010. The study said the eight million tonne figure was a mid-range estimate based on the low range of 4.8 million and the high of 12.7 million tonnes. Assuming business as usual, population growth projections and increasing plastic consumption and waste generation, the researchers estimated the eight million tonne average would double by 2025, adding 17.5 million tonnes of plastic per year to the ocean. The study said over the 15 years from 2010 to 2025, the level of plastic in the ocean would rise to 155 million metric tonnes or 10.3 million tonnes on average per year. [11]

Based on this evidence AAP FactCheck found Dr Phelps claim that "around nine million tonnes of plastic rubbish" ends up in the ocean every year to be true.

According to the 2015 study and 2010 data, Australia generated 1.9 million kilograms of plastic waste per day and was ranked 34th highest on the list of 192 nations studied. The US was the worst offender with 37.7 million kilograms of plastic waste generated per day and China was No.2 with 31.7 million. [12]

The Verdict

  • True - The checkable claim is true.

The References

1. ‘Kerryn Phelps reveals voting history and thoughts on Folau in Wentworth Courier live blog’, by Anton Rose. Wentworth Courier. May 13, 2019: https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/wentworth-courier/kerryn-phelps-reveals-voting-history-and-thoughts-on-folau-in-wentworth-courier-live-blog/news-story/2d9f9a20f8e750594ddde7f60ab3c69b

2. ‘Dr Kerryn Phelps AM, MP’. Parliament of Australia: https://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Parliamentarian?MPID=008Z0

3. ‘Wentworth Key Seat Sydney Eastern Suburbs. Australia Votes’. ABC: https://www.abc.net.au/news/elections/federal/2019/guide/went/

4. ‘Federal election 2019: Liberal polling shows economy is top issue in Wentworth’, by Nick Sas. ABC May 14, 2019: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-14/federal-election-2019-liberal-polling-shows-shift-in-wentworth/11104332

5. ‘What I stand for”. Dr Kerryn Phelps MP: https://www.kerrynphelps.com.au/what_i_stand_for

6. ‘An open letter to our politicians: Save the oceans from plastic pollution’, by Jeremy Brown. Independent Australia. May 5, 2019: https://independentaustralia.net/environment/environment-display/an-open-letter-to-our-politicians-save-the-oceans-from-plastic-pollution,12641

7. About Ocean Protect. 2019: https://oceanprotect.com.au/about/

8. ‘The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future & Catalysing Action’ (Page 12). Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2017: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/NPEC-Hybrid_English_22-11-17_Digital.pdf

9. ‘Our mission’. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2017: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/our-story/mission

10. ‘One Year On’, by Dame Ellen MacArthur. World Ocean Initiative. The Economist Group. December 9, 2018: https://www.woi.economist.com/one-year-on-ocean-ellen-macarthur-foundation/

11. ‘Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean’, by Jenna Jambeck et al. Environmental Engineering College of Engineering, University of Georgia. 2015: https://jambeck.engr.uga.edu/landplasticinput

12. ‘Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean’, by Jenna Jambeck et al. Environmental Engineering College of Engineering, University of Georgia. 2015. (Spreadsheet containing data from 192 countries): https://jambeck.engr.uga.edu/landplasticinput

  • First published May 15, 2019 17:38 AEST