CSIRO takes up the challenge of the 21st century – to end plastic waste

CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, is developing a major research program to tackle plastic waste and reimagine the future of plastics.

The Plastics Mission, one of 12 missions in development by CSIRO is using science and technology, to address Australia’s plastics waste issue.

Each year, 90 billion tonnes of primary materials are extracted and used globally for plastics.

However, only 9% is recycled, with economic, social, environmental and health impacts.

In Australia, we generate an estimated 67 million tonnes of waste every year.

CSIRO Senior Principal Research Scientist Dr Denise Hardesty said CSIRO was working with collaborators through the Plastics Mission to apply technological solutions to the entire plastics supply chain and prevent rubbish ending up in the environment.

“Our research is helping to understand the extent of plastic pollution in Australia and globally, and how to reduce it,” Dr Hardesty said.

“Rethinking plastic packaging is just one way of reducing waste, through better design, materials and logistics.

“We can also transform the way we use, manufacture and recycle plastics by creating new products and more value for plastics.”

Possible solutions under development include plastics detection using artificial intelligence, implementing and optimising waste monitoring systems, and establishing recycling standards and best practices to reduce contamination.

Machine and camera sensor technologies

Machine learning and camera sensor technologies are fast-tracking data collection to detect and classify items of rubbish in our rivers.

This project, in partnership with Microsoft, helps inform waste management strategies, highlighting where intervention is needed to stop plastic from entering waterways.

Microsoft Australia chief technology officer Lee Hickin highlighted the importance of supporting the efforts to aid in the development of a national baseline to measure litter accumulation in the environment, which was key for measuring and reacting to change.

“Microsoft artificial intelligence image recognition is underpinning the identification of plastic pollution,” Mr Hickin said.

“By using AI to accelerate the detection and classification of rubbish in our waterways, we can simply react more quickly and work to improve the quality of water faster than if done manually.”

Camera sensor technologies are also being applied to waste traps, commonly used by councils to prevent rubbish flowing through stormwater drains into the environment.

City of Hobart Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds said the City was working with CSIRO to develop an autonomous sensor network to provide real-time reporting on the amount of rubbish being captured.

“Gross pollutant traps capture rubbish that ends up in stormwater drains,” Cr Reynolds said.

“But maintenance can be costly and time-consuming.

“By tapping into CSIRO’s modelling capabilities, we can optimise our operations to avoid the release of pollutants, while improving safety and reducing environmental harm.”

Turning resources to riches

CSIRO is also collaborating with Chemistry Australia and their Plastics Stewardship Australia initiative to inform ways to more sustainably use, re-use and recycle plastic products.

Director Strategy Energy and Research for Chemistry Australia Peter Bury said new technologies and initiatives to recover and transform what are important resources into commodities supports the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals and can help drive Australia’s circular economy.

“With a pending export ban for Australian waste, the time is now to address the plastic waste problem,” Mr Bury said.

“Leading science will help establish standards to ensure product security and inform decision-making.

“Leveraging the capability of industry for plastic products at their end of life will also generate new types of products and design, and help build new industries and jobs across a range of sectors.”

CSIRO Missions Program

CSIRO is working with government, universities, industry and the community on a new missions program to bolster Australia’s COVID-19 recovery and build long term resilience.

The program of large scale, major scientific and collaborative research initiatives, is aimed at solving some of Australia’s greatest challenges, focused on outcomes that lead to positive impact, new jobs and economic growth.

Plastics Mission

These projects are part of CSIRO’s Plastics Mission to end plastic waste, which is one of 12 missions in development.

Early collaborators working to co-design a mission to end plastic waste include:

Chemistry and Plastics Stewardship

Working together on initiatives to support the sustainable use and recovery of plastics. This includes establishing best practices and standards to ensure product reliability, food security, sustainability; and partnering with Operation Clean Sweep® to prevent plastic pellet loss into the environment.

Hobart City Council

Pilot project partner for cameras to measure waste flows and smart sensor and decision support technologies to reduce costs, increase safety and better manage gross pollutant trap assets.


Microsoft computer vision technologies is enabling CSIRO researchers to detect and classify the rubbish in rivers, infer litter abundance and distribution and inform councils and decision makers in order to build more suitable policies and waste management systems.

NSW Government

CSIRO is supporting the Regional Growth NSW Development Corporation on a program of long-term engagement in the NSW Special Activation Precincts in Parkes, Wagga Wagga, Moree, Snowy Mountains and Williamtown.

Our collaboration with the NSW Government as well as NSW universities and industry in these Precincts will assist to accelerate NSW economic recovery by creating future industries and highly skilled jobs.

Ocean Protect

Ocean Protect is an implementing partner for gross pollutant traps in stormwater drains to optimise performance, reduce costs and increase safety.

Standards Australia CSIRO is working with Standards Australia to design and implement a clear set of guidelines for plastics recycling and recycled content to decrease contamination and increase the value of recycled stocks.

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