Australia-first research reveals staggering loss of threatened plants over 20 years


Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; Elisa Bayraktarov, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; Jaana Dielenberg, Charles Darwin University; Jennifer Silcock, The University of Queensland; Micha Victoria Jackson, The University of Queensland, and Nathalie Butt, The University of Queensland

When it comes to threatened species, charismatic animals usually get the most attention. But many of Australia’s plants are also in grave danger of extinction, and in many cases, the problem is getting worse.

New Australia-first research shows the population sizes of our threatened plants fell by almost three-quarters, on average, between 1995 and 2017. The findings were drawn from Australia’s 2020 Threatened Species Index, which combines data from almost 600 sites.

Plants are part of what makes us and our landscapes unique. They are important in their own right, but also act as habitat for other species and play critical roles in the broader ecosystem.

This massive data-crunching exercise shows that a lot more effort is needed if we want to prevent plant extinctions.

Plants, such as WA’s Endangered Foote’s grevillea, make our landscape unique.
Andrew Crawford / WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions

Spotlight on plants

Australia’s plant species are special – 84% are found nowhere else in the world. The index shows that over about 20 years up to 2017, Australia’s threatened plant populations declined by 72%. This is faster than mammals (which declined by about a third), and birds (which declined by about half). Populations of trees, shrubs, herbs and orchids all suffered roughly similar average declines (65-75%) over the two decades.

Of the 112 species in the index, 68% are critically endangered or endangered and at risk of extinction if left unmanaged. Some 37 plant species have gone extinct since records began, though many others are likely to have been lost before scientists even knew they existed. Land clearing, changed fire regimes, grazing by livestock and feral animals, plant diseases, weeds and climate change are common causes of decline.




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Vulnerable plant populations reduced to small areas can also face unique threats. For example, by the early 2000s Foote’s grevillea (Grevillea calliantha) had dwindled to just 27 wild plants on road reserves. Road maintenance activities such as mowing and weed spraying became a major threat to its survival. For other species, like the button wrinklewort, small populations can lead to inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity.

Fire, interrupted

Threatened plant conservation in fire-prone landscapes is challenging if a species’ relationship with fire is not known. Many Australian plant species require particular intensities or frequencies of burns for seed to be released or germinate. But since European settlement, fire patterns have been interrupted, causing many plant populations to decline.

Three threatened native pomaderris shrubs on the NSW South Coast are a case in point. Each of them – Pomaderris adnata, P. bodalla and P. walshii – have failed to reproduce for several years and are now found only in a few locations, each with a small number of plants.

Experimental trials recently revealed that to germinate, the seeds of these pomaderris species need exposure to hot-burning fires (or a hot oven). However they are now largely located in areas that seldom burn. This is important knowledge for conservation managers aiming to help wild populations persist.

Endangered sublime point pomaderris (Pomaderris adnata) requires high fire temperatures to germinate.
Jedda Lemmon /NSW DPIE, Saving our Species

Success is possible

A quarter of the species in the threatened plant index are orchids. Orchids make up 17% of plant species listed nationally as threatened, despite comprising just 6% of Australia’s total plant species.

The endangered coloured spider-orchid (Caladenia colorata) is pollinated only by a single thynnine wasp, and relies on a single species of mycorrhizal fungi to germinate in the wild.

Yet even for such a seemingly difficult species, conservation success is possible. In one project, scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, aided by volunteers, identified sites where the wasp was still naturally present. More than 800 spider orchid plants were then propagated in a lab using the correct symbiotic fungus, then planted at four sites. These populations are now considered to be self-sustaining.

In the case of Foote’s grevillea, a plant translocation program has established 500 plants at three new sites, dramatically improving the species’ long-term prospects.

Orchid flower
The coloured spider orchid, found in South Australia and Victoria, is endangered.
Noushka Reiter/Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

But we aren’t doing enough

Both federal environment laws and the national threatened species strategy are under review. Submissions by research institutions and others have noted a lack of data, recovery actions and conservation funding for plants.

Our research found threatened plant populations at managed sites suffered declines of 60% on average, compared to 80% declines at unmanaged sites. This shows that while management is beneficial, it is not preventing overall declines.

New data on threatened species trends are added to the plant index each year, but many species are missing from the index because they aren’t being monitored.




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Monitoring of threatened species is undertaken by government and non-government groups, community groups, Indigenous organisations, citizen scientists, researchers and individuals. Without it, we have no idea if species are recovering or heading unnoticed towards extinction.

Woman measuring the height of a plant
Monitoring is essential to know if conservation actions are working.
Rebecca Dillon / WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions

Australia has about 1,800 threatened species. Of these, 77% – or 1,342 species – are plants. However the index received monitoring data for only 10% of these plants, compared to 35% of threatened birds, which make up only 4% of threatened species.

If you’re keen to get involved in plant monitoring, it involves just a few simple steps:

  • find a local patch with a threatened plant species

  • revisit it once or twice a year to count the number of individuals in a consistent, well-defined area

  • use the same method and the same amount of effort each visit

  • take great care to not disturb the plant or its habitat when looking for it

  • contribute your data to the index.

Saving Australia’s flora

Australia must urgently change the way we prioritise conservation actions and enact environment laws, if we hope to prevent more plant extinctions.

Critical actions include stopping further habitat loss and more funding for recovery actions as well as extinction risk assessments. It is important that these assessments adhere to consistent criteria. This is something the common assessment method, agreed to by all states and territories, seeks to achieve.

Finally, more funding for research into the impacts of key threats (and how to manage them) will help ensure our unique flora are not lost forever.

Prof Hugh Possingham and Dr Ayesha Tulloch discuss the 2020 findings of the Threatened Plant Index.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that reviews of federal environment laws and the threatened species strategy found a lack of data, recovery actions and conservation funding for plants. While those problems were identified in public submissions to the reviews, the reviews themselves are not yet finalised.The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Elisa Bayraktarov, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jaana Dielenberg, University Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Jennifer Silcock, Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland; Micha Victoria Jackson, Postdoctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland, and Nathalie Butt, Postdoctoral Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s waste export ban becomes law, but the crisis is far from over


Jenni Downes, Monash University; Damien Giurco, University of Technology Sydney, and Rose Read, University of Technology Sydney

Last week, Australia took an important step towards addressing the ongoing effects of the 2018 waste crisis. The federal parliament passed legislation banning the export of unprocessed waste overseas via the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020.

The new law provides an impetus to reconfigure local infrastructure to reprocess and re-manufacture recyclables onshore. It should create local demand to reuse these recovered materials in infrastructure, packaging and products as part of a move towards a circular economy.

It’s encouraging to see the federal government finally providing clear policy direction for the waste industry and making Australia more responsible for how our waste is recovered. But it’s far from enough to temper the waste crisis.

Is exporting waste ‘bad’?

The total amount of waste generated in 2018-19 went up 10% from just two years earlier — and only half of that was recycled. Meanwhile, opportunities to export material for overseas recycling have been drying up.

In 2019, Australia exported an estimated 7% of all waste generated. The proportion is much higher for the household commingled recycling bin, where around one-third of all paper and plastics were exported to overseas trading partners, particularly in Asia.

Exporting material recovered from waste isn’t “bad” per se, particularly when you consider Australia imports more manufactured goods than we make locally. Currently, our economy remains structured around exporting virgin (new) and recyclable materials, which are made into products offshore and then re-imported.

So, when we export well-sorted, quality, recyclable material, it’s no different than exporting, say, iron ore.

However, just dumping “rubbish” on other countries is not acceptable. And even exporting potentially recyclable material without taking responsibility for how the material will be recovered overseas leads to a greater risk of it being dumped or burned.

Stages of recycling Australia’s mixed kerbside wastes.
Downes, J. (2020)

Such an economic structure makes us reliant on international markets and the policy priorities of those countries.

This was highlighted in 2018 when China banned waste imports of all but the highest purity, with other countries in Asia following suit. This shocked Australia’s (and the world’s) recycling industry, and led to plummeting prices for certain waste materials and increased stockpiling and short-term landfilling.




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China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


What’s more, when developing countries import too much waste or low-quality material, their infrastructure and markets can become overwhelmed. The waste then ends up “leaking” into the environment, including the ocean, as litter.

A ban on Australia’s waste export was first announced in August 2019 to help address our responsibility for ocean plastics. The ban could localise much of Australia’s reprocessing — and possibly, manufacturing — activity.

What does the ban involve?

The new law passed last week will complement and extend existing laws on hazardous waste and product stewardship.

Effectively, the ban prohibits the export of specific raw (unprocessed) materials collected for recycling: plastic, paper, glass and tires. Any materials that have been re-processed and turned into other “value-added” materials (those ready for further use) can still be exported under the law. For example, a single type of plastic cleaned and shredded into “flakes”, or cleaned packaging glass crushed into “cullet”.

The law is accompanied by commitments from the federal and state governments to help address some of the critical systemic barriers to onshore processing, such as the lack of existing infrastructure and domestic markets for reprocessed material.

No room for error

Without sufficient transition measures, it’s possible the ban could lead to more waste ending up in landfills, stockpiling or illegal dumping.

For the ban to be effective, a lot of things need to go right. This includes:

Getting the transition right will be critical for Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, which are particularly lacking in proper infrastructure.




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Can we safely burn waste to make fuel like they do in Denmark? Well, it’s complicated


It’s also important for NSW and Victoria because of the high proportion of banned materials they currently export. For example, over 80% of Australia’s exported plastic was from NSW and Victoria, while 90% of exported glass was from Victoria.

Ultimately, it’s far better for the environment to reduce the generation of waste in the first place.
Shutterstock

Increasing momentum

Given exports are only a part of overall waste material flows, it’s great to see the ban is part of a suite of responses. This includes the Recycling Modernisation Fund, and the recent $10 million National Product Stewardship Investment Fund and Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence.

Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact these are predominantly “end-of-pipe” solutions.

While there are promising efforts from industry and government to minimise waste by improving the design of Australian-made products and packaging, more should be done.

Options include minimum design standards and extended producer responsibility, which would make manufacturers and retailers financially responsible for ensuring their products are recycled. This would incentivise better “up the chain” (design) choices.




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Four bins might help, but to solve our waste crisis we need a strong market for recycled products


And as a major importer of manufactured products, Australia also needs to manage what’s coming into the country through improved standards, such as minimum requirements for recyclability and durability, or prohibiting problematic materials in inferior products that will quickly become waste.

Ultimately, it’s far better for the environment to reduce the generation of waste in the first place. Together with better design, this will move us towards a more circular economy.

If Australia’s new waste and recycling law represents increasing momentum towards a circular economy in Australia, rather than a pinnacle on which we rest, it will be an excellent step forward.The Conversation

Jenni Downes, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute), Monash University; Damien Giurco, Professor of Resource Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Rose Read, Adjunct professor, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.