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The most common item of rubbish choking the Yarra River

All industries that manufacture, transport and handle polystyrene need to take stronger action, the report – Polystyrene pollution in the Yarra River: Sources and Solutions – says.

Yarra riverkeeper Andrew Kelly with polystyrene waste.

Yarra riverkeeper Andrew Kelly with polystyrene waste.Credit:Justin McManus

The report says polystyrene is more harmful than other types of plastic because it is made of relatively hazardous chemicals.

Expanded polystyrene, also known as styrofoam, is especially pernicious because it is lightweight and brittle. This means it is easily blown into gutters and stormwater drains and quickly breaks into small pieces, making the clean-up very difficult.

Polystyrene is the most common form of rubbish found in the Yarra.

Polystyrene is the most common form of rubbish found in the Yarra.Credit:Justin McManus

Since April 2018, about 38,000 kilograms of polystyrene-contaminated soil and general waste has been removed from the Yarra’s riverbanks and reed beds.

The most common types of polystyrene found in the Yarra catchment were protective packaging for white goods and electronics, polystyrene balls and food and drink packaging such as foam coffee cups and trays.

“The big question our research tackled is working out where this pervasive material is coming from – and how we can stop it at the source before it enters our stormwater systems and out into the rivers and Port Phillip Bay,” Mr Kelly said.

The Yarra Riverkeeper Association identified polystyrene manufacturers, wholesalers, shopping centres and recyclers at 64 sites across Melbourne. More than 80 per cent of field observations found some level of “polystyrene leakage”.

The Environment Protection Authority said it took all reports regarding pollution and waste seriously.

Regional manager Stephen Lansdell said the authority was in the process of issuing a notice to manufacturer National Polystyrene Systems in Sunshine North.

He said he company will be required to install litter fences to trap polystyrene, litter trap controls in every stormwater drain at its site, install a permanent barrier at the rear of the site and clean up all beads and individual pieces of polystyrene..

A spokesman for National Polystyrene Systems said the company “100 per cent recycle our polystyrene in house”.

“We regularly pick up any foam that may have been blown by the wind in our yard,” the spokesman said in an email.

Mr Lansdell said the EPA had also issued a notice with the same requirements to Coolaroo business VicFoam in 2019 regarding pollution in Merlynston Creek. He said the notice was complied with by the company and had since been revoked.

The report said even in situations where retail staff took as many precautions as possible – like staff at Big W Highpoint who ensure skip bins do not overfill and surrounding areas are swept – polystyrene still gets into stormwater drains.

Big W said it had standard procedures for waste management including responsible disposal of plastics and packing materials that may include polystyrene..

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“We have not been made aware that any polystyrene has gone into the river. If the Yarra Riverkeeper Association wants to contact us about ways we can improve our processes, we would be happy to have the conversation,” a spokesman said.

The report said accidental leakage also appeared to be the case at recycling or waste transfer centres.

At Yarra Recycling Centre, for example, polystyrene was observed on footpaths, inside stormwater drains and entering Merri Creek via a stormwater outlet pipe.

“This suggests that perhaps mitigative management measures must be be met with a possible gradual phase out of the material in its current form, particularly in single-use, short-term applications,” the report says.

The US state of Maine banned polystyrene foam containers last year and the governor of New York has proposed a statewide ban on single-use food containers and packing peanuts made of polystyrene.

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Although technically there is legislation to prosecute waterway pollution, the vast majority of cases are going unnoticed, the report says.

“Increased monitoring and control measures implemented by the expanded polystyrene industry therefore need to be met with improved legislation and stronger enforcement from both local and state governments in order to stop the flow of this material into the iconic Yarra River and eventually Port Phillip Bay.”

The Victorian government said new environmental laws would come into effect from July 1.

“We’re giving the EPA stronger powers to protect the river and our natural environment, with stronger sanctions against those who pollute and litter,” Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said.

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