Curious Climate schools
Curious Climate schools

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

What could be done to reduce single use plastics in supermarkets?

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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?

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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
Why aren’t we being responsible for recycling as a nation?

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Historically, Australia hasn’t been very good at recycling with only around 11% of what we throw away being recycled into new products and large volumes of our “hard to recycle” materials being sent to our neighbouring countries, such as China, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

However, in 2018, China who received the vast majority of exported recyclable waste from countries such as, Australia, United States of America, and the United Kingdom, said “no more” and banned any country from exporting their waste to China. This ban was known as the National Sword Policy.

China’s new policy was a big wake up call for Australia and forced Australia to rethink and take responsibility for the ways we produce, use and discard products. In 2019, the Australia Federal Government announced a commitment and released a plan to manage and recycle all paper, plastic, rubber tires and glass materials within Australia. This means that every glass jar, plastic bottle, and paper cup you place in your recycling bin, as well as the old tires that get replaced on your parents’ car, will be recycled within Australia, and turned into new products. By 2030, Australia aims to recover and recycling 80% of all waste that we throw away. So although Australia hasn’t been the best at recycling in the past, we are now investing money and research into systems that do make us responsible for what products are available to purchase, how we use the products and importantly how we throw away our products. You might start noticing some new changes to the way we throw away our rubbish in years to come. For example, we might start having more bins for different waste streams, such as a bin just for glass or a bin just for cardboard.

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