Curious Climate schools
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Dr Kathy Willis

CSIRO Oceans & Atmosphere
Research Areas
Plastic pollution, circular economy, waste, recycling,
Why I do what I do
I am passionate about finding innovative ways that help reduce waste and enable us to use our resources more sustainably. I want to find solutions to plastic pollution that involve everyday people and the choices they can make. As a female Tasmanian scientist, growing up on the rural northwest coast, I am also passionate about inspiring students in rural Tasmania to think big and chase their dreams. Getting students to recognise the advantages of growing up in Tasmania.
Something interesting about me
I was a scientific diver for many years. I have skied 2 volcanoes (they were both dormant).

Questions answered by this expert

Does putting rubbish in bins and recycling bins help?

View Answer

Yes indeed! Putting your waste in a rubbish bin or recycling bin is much better than littering it into the environment. Keeping rubbish out of the environment is very important as the rubbish can cause harm to wildlife and our economy if it is in the environment. To understand some of the harms rubbish can have on the environment take a look at my answer to another of this year’s question!

Even better than placing your rubbish in the bin, is to look at different ways you can reduce and reuse the products and packaging you purchase. Take a look at one of last year’s questions to learn how you can reduce single-use plastic in the supermarket.

What effect can a single piece of plastic have on the environment? What effect is plastic having on a global scale?

View Answer

There are many different types of plastic that come in many different shapes. This means the impact that a single piece of plastic can have on the environment, depends upon what type, and shape the plastic is. For example, discarded fishing gear (also called ghost gear) can have a larger impact on the environment, than a plastic bottle cap. Plastic pollution can causes many harms to the environment, particularly wildlife. Some of the main harms are:

  • Ingestion. When an animal mistakes plastic for food, the plastic can cause a blockage in the animal’s gut, it can pierce the animal’s gut and cause infection, or the animal’s stomach can become filled with plastic leaving no room for food and causing the animal to starve.
  • Entanglement. An animal can become entangled in plastic, which can restrict the animal moving and reduce its ability to hunt and feed. Plastic entanglement can also restrict an animals growth leading to body deformities or the plastic cutting into the animal’s skin.
  • Transport for invasive species to reach new habitats. Plastic floating in the ocean provides a surface for marine species, particularly seaweed and shellfish, to attach to and hitch-hike a ride to a new habitat.
Seal entangled in a fragment of fishing net. Credit: Mary Evans Picture.
Dead albatross with stomach full of plastic CC BY-NC 4.0 Source:

Globally, plastic pollution is found in the deepest regions of our oceans, the Mariana Trench, and on the highest regions of our mountains, the Himalayas. This plastic pollution can harm:

  • Wildlife, through entanglement, ingestion and transport for invasive species.
  • Economies, as it is very expensive to clean up, makes places unattractive to tourism and can cause damage to vessels.
  • Human health, as plastics are made of many different chemicals which can leach into our bodies. Some of these chemicals have been linked to damaging health effects. For example, damage to human body cells, and altering hormone activity.    
Example of ghost gear found on the shores of Norway. Source: Bo Eide. Creative Commons License
Example of some goose-neck barnacles hitchhiking a ride on a plastic bottle. Source: Guilhem Amin Douillet,
Why doesn’t the government do much about plastic waste?

View Answer

Since the 1950s the rate of plastic production has rapidly increased. This has led to a rapid increase in the amount of plastic we find in our bins and unfortunately, the environment. It is expected that our global plastic use will double by 2040. Historically, Australia has not been very good at reducing or recycling our plastic waste with 13% of all plastic waste recycled and around 130,000 tonnes of leaking into the marine environment. In 2021, the Australian Government introduced a plan called “The National Plastics Plan” to:

  • Reduce the amount of plastic waste Australia creates,
  • Increase recycling rate of plastic within Australia
  • Find alternative products and materials to replace unnecessary plastics

So, although historically Australia has had low recycling rates for plastics, the 2021 plan aims to take strong action to reduce plastic waste in our bins and the environment.

How does plastic turn into micro-plastics?

View Answer

Microplastics are described as any plastic that is less than 5mm in size. Interestingly there are two types of microplastics, primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are plastic items that are manufactured to be very small. For example, microbeads are tiny balls of plastic that can be found in personal hygiene products such as face scrubs, soaps, and toothpaste. Microfibers are tiny strands of plastic that are used to make clothing such as polar fleece jumpers.

Example of primary microplastics: microbeads. Photograph: Hennel/Alamy Stock Photo. Source:

Secondary microplastics are a result of larger plastic items breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. For example, a plastic bottle breaking down into smaller fragments of plastic or a Styrofoam box breaking into smaller pieces. The breakdown of large plastic items into microplastics are caused by weather weakening the material, and other objects scraping and breaking the larger plastic objects.

Example of secondary microplastics created by a styrofoam box breaking down. Source: Getty Images/iStockphoto. Credit: Akhmad Bayuri.
What could be done to reduce single use plastics in supermarkets?

View Answer

When you walk down a supermarket isle you will notice many items are packaged in single-use plastics. This is because plastic is cheap, lightweight, and durable (i.e. difficult to break) when compared to other packaging materials such as glass (which is heavy and can break easily) or paper (which can fall apart when wet). Supermarkets are a “for-profit” business which means they like to make money and will make decisions that increase the amount of money they make. So, supermarkets are stocking their shelves with products wrapped in plastic because it can make them more money. Remember, plastic is cheap to make, it’s hard to break so products wrapped in plastic are less likely to break and spill their contents all over the supermarket floor, and plastic is lightweight, so products wrapped in plastic are cheaper to transport around the world because they wight less. Supermarkets have also found that they can sell more products when they are wrapped in plastic. This is because some consumers feel items wrapped in plastic are more hygienic than the same item unwrapped and it is more convenient for consumers (i.e. it saves them more time) to grab pre-packed/pre-bagged items than having to select from a pile of loose items. For example, it’s much easier and faster to grab a bag of 8 potatoes or 8 apples, than having to individually select the 8 potatoes yourself and put them into a bag .

Three ways we can support supermarkets to reduce the amount of single-use plastic on their shelves are:

  1. Don’t buy pre-packed/bagged items and bring your own bags to the supermarket. If we take that bit of extra time to select our own potatoes or apples from the pile rather than grabbing the pre-bagged option, then we are creating consumer demand for supermarkets to stock more apples and potatoes that are not wrapped in single-use plastic. If every consumer made this choice, then supermarkets might stop stocking their shelves with the pre-bagged option.
  2. Support supermarkets and supermarket products that are wrapped in plastic-alternative or non-plastic packaging. Scientists are developing plastic-alternative materials from plant and seaweed extracts. These alternatives are lightweight and durable like plastic; however, these alternatives are less harmful to our environment. Plastic-alternative materials are becoming increasingly more popular to use in packaging. Next time you are at the supermarket see if you can find any products packaged in plastic-alternative or non-plastic materials. If consumers buy more of these products, then it tells supermarkets to stock more items packaged in these materials.
  3. Write to your local member in Local, State and Federal Government and ask them to put in a law that requires supermarkets to stock items that are not packaged in single-use plastics. Recently, the Hobart City Council passed a law which banned restaurants and take-away shops from selling their items in single-use plastic packaging. Perhaps this law could be extended to supermarkets as well? Maybe after reading this, you’ve thought of a better way supermarkets can reduce single-use plastics. I encourage you to write it in a letter to your local member or local newspaper. Who knows, maybe your idea and letter will be the start of another solution to win the war on waste! Check out these school students who started their own campaigns that have changed the way we use single-use plastics. No More Straw Campaign by Molly, Bye Bye Plastic Bags a youth driven campaign in Indonesia.
What measures have been put in place to improve Tasmanian waste management?

View Answer

Over the past decade people and governments around the world have come to realise the damage our waste can have on our wildlife, economies and well-being. To try and reduce the damages our waste can have, governments and organisations are rethinking the way we produce, use and importantly throw away our waste. In Tasmania (and in Australia), waste and recycling are managed at the local government level. So, the waste and recycling rules that you might follow in Burnie, might be different to the rules in Queenstown, St Helens, Launceston, or Hobart. Two big changes that have happened around Tasmania that improves the way we manage our waste a

1. Introducing a Container Deposit Scheme. This scheme allows you to drop-off your glass, metal and plastic drink containers at designated locations and received 10 cents back for every container. This scheme will discourage people from littering their waste and encourage people to pick up littered containers out of the environment.

2. Introducing a mandatory waste levy. A waste levy is a fee paid to the Tasmanian State Government by landfill and other licensed waste facility operators for every tonne of waste received. In Tasmania, many landfills are operated by local government (councils), so the waste levy is paid by our local councils. By 2022, all councils in Tasmania should have a waste levy in place. Some councils in Tasmania have already introduced a waste levy of $5 per tonne of waste that enters landfill. The waste levy fee councils pay is passed onto those who use landfill. So every time you go to dump your waste at landfill, you must pay. The waste levy money collected by the council is paid to the State Government. The money collected by the Tasmania State Government will be used to invest in new waste and recycling systems and infrastructure around Tasmania that will help increase the amount of waste we recycle and decrease the amount of waste entering landfill and the environment.

License: CC BY 2.0 . Image by Nicholas Boullosa, Jan 17, 2008. Image accessed at
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