Plastic pollution causes great harm to the organisms big and small that encounter it. From tiny corals to majestic whales, more than 700 marine species are known to be killed either by the ingestion of plastic or entanglement - resulting in millions of animal deaths a year, that we know of. 

Right now there are as many as 51 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. That's 51 trillion deadly hazards that animals need to avoid.

Made to be used just once, plastic can last forever in the environment. Once a plastic bag, abandoned fishing net or bottle cap has killed by entanglement, strangulation, suffocation or starvation, it simply has to wait for its victim to decompose to be released back into the environment. Plastic does not decompose - it will be ready to kill again soon. 

What is the death toll?

Mangrove horseshoe crab (Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda) entangled in abandoned driftnet. Credit: Ria Tan

Why do animals eat plastic?

Unlike humans, wild animals do not have the ability to discern plastic from "digestible" materials. Simply put, if it looks like food, or smells like food, or tastes like food or behaves like food, then it must be food. 

  • Filter-feeding animals, like whale sharks and baleen whales, can ingest plastic by accident.
  • Plastic can release chemicals that smell like food, triggering species such as anchovies to find it. 
  • Jellyfish-eating species, such as ocean sunfish and sea turtles, mistake plastic bags and balloon ribbons for jelly medusae.
  • Grazing and scavenging animals, such as cows, seagulls, dogs and camels, regularly eat plastic that has been contaminated with human food.
  • Plastic microbeads resemble fish eggs and are often eaten by jellyfish, egg-eating fish and filter feeders.
  • Seabirds that skim the ocean surface while flying, such as albatrosses, cannot differentiate floating food from litter.
  • Sonar of some animals can confuse plastic for squid and jellyfish.
  • Hunting seabirds mistake small pieces of suspended plastic, such as cigarette lighters, for small prey fish.
  • Red, pink and brown pieces of plastic debris are mistaken for shrimp.

How does it kill?

There is no quick death when it comes to plastic:

  • Jagged plastic can get stuck in their throats, causing them to suffocate or prevent them from regurgitating to feed their chicks.
  • Plastic can accumulate in animals' stomachs, making them feel full, stopping them from eating and resulting in starvation.
  • Entangled marine mammals and reptiles may be unable to surface, or become exhausted from drag and drown.
  • Entangled birds might drown or be unable to find food and water and thus slowly starve.
  • Incisions caused by plastic nooses can cause infections that eventually lead to death.

What other effects are plastic having on wildlife?

A fragment of plastic stuck to the back od a shrimp. Credit: Collection of Allen Shimada, NOAA/NMFS/OST [CC BY 2.0]

The above information represents just a tiny portion of the animal casualties caused by plastic. How many sharks are killed that we never find because their bodies sink? How many cows die in impoverished communities where no postmortem is ever carried out? How many ocean microorganisms are affected? We don't know -  but we know the consequences will be dire unless we take action.

Plastic pollution is a global problem, let's work together for a global solution. But...

We must also act locally and choose to refuse, recycle, pick reusable alternatives, and pick up litter whenever we see it.

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