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The plastic problem: how does plastic pollution affect wildlife?

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The plastic problem: how does plastic pollution affect wildlife?

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.

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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. 

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What is the death toll?

  • Sea turtles: All seven species of endangered sea turtle ingest or are entangled by plastic. More than 50% of sea turtles eat plastic (alternate source). 50-80% of all dead sea turtles found have plastic inside them.
    • Alvi, a green sea turtle stranded on the South African coast, was saved by the Aquarium team after having a whole plastic bag pulled out of its throat.
    • A tiny stranded loggerhead turtle hatchling, less than a few weeks old, pooped out an entire party balloon.
    • The Two Oceans Aquarium's green sea turtle Bob is one of the few sea turtles lucky enough to survive eating plastic - he was rescued after being stranded.
    • A Thai veterinarian saved an endangered turtle by removing a 30cm plastic bag from its digestive system.

  • Marine mammals: 54% of all whales, dolphins and seals are impacted by plastic. NOAA estimates that 100 000 marine mammals are killed by plastic each year.
    • A 2019 study of dolphins, whales and seals in waters of the UK found that 100% of dead animals on their coast had ingested plastic.
    • In 2018, in Thailand, a pilot whale was killed by 80 plastic shopping bags.
    • Vulnerable sperm whales are the species most commonly found killed by plastic debris.
      • A pregnant sperm whale washed up on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea with 20kg of plastic in its stomach. Upon autopsy, it was found that the whale had still managed to eat squid, but was unable to absorb the nutrients due to the plastic waste and slowly starved.
      • In November 2018, a sperm whale died in Indonesia after eating 155 cups, four plastic bottles, 25 single-use bags and two flip-flops.
      • In 2018, a juvenile sperm whale was found on the coast of Spain with 30kg of plastic in its gut.
      • Four stranded sperm whales were stranded on the German coast, with stomach contents including car parts, a 13 metre long net and a bucket.
      • In 2013 one was found dead in the Netherlands after eating 17kg of plastic.
      • Another was found in California in 2008 with more than 200kg of fishing gear and plastic bags in its stomach.
      • In 2006, a sperm whale was found dead in Greece with 100 plastic shopping bags in its stomach.
      • One of the first whales documented to have been killed by plastic was a sperm whale in France that ingested 30 metres of plastic sheeting in 1989.
    • In March 2019, a  Cuvier's beak whale was found vomiting blood in the waters of the Philippines, dying shortly afterwards. Upon autopsy, it was found that almost 40kg of rice sacks, chip packets and balls of fishing gear had built-up in its stomach, causing a buildup of stomach acid which dissolved the walls of the whale's stomach and caused it to bleed to death internally.
    • A rare goose-beaked whale had to euthanised in Norway in 2017 after ingesting 30 plastic shopping bags.
    • In 2011, a Gervais' beaked whale was found with 17kg of plastic in its stomach in Puerto Rico.
    • A Bryde's whale was killed by a nylon rope, a plastic bag and a bottle cap in Malaysia in 2008. Another was found dead in Australia in 2000 with a stomach filled with 6m2 of plastic bags.
    • In 2006, a Cuvier's beaked whale in the Cook Islands was killed by a single plastic shopping bag.
    • In France, a Minke whale was killed by just 800g of plastic bags in 2002.

Fish: A study conducted by the University of Exeter concluded that the number of sharks and rays entangled by plastic debris is largely underestimated.

  • 114 species of marine fish are known to regularly be entangled in or ingest plastic. At least a million fish are killed this way each year.
  • A recent study found that 75% of all fish in the Nile River contained microplastic.

Birds: Two-thirds of all seabird species are affected, representing 56% of all seabird species. Millions of birds are killed each year.  98% of albatrosses have ingested plastic, and 40% of their chicks died when they are fed this by their parents.

  • Entangled birds are a problem even in Cape Town - imagine how many of these tiny lives are lost that we don't know about.
  • Swans at popular ponds in the UK are being harmed by discarded fishing gear.

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  • Coral: Several coral species have been observed starving as their digestive systems have been blocked by microplastic or their photosynthetic zooxanthellae were killed by being shaded by plastic. 
  • Land mammals:
    • A duck-billed platypus was found strangled to death by a hair tie.
    • Japan's famous Nara Park deer are being killed by plastic litter - one deer found with 4.3kg of plastic in its stomach.
      • The same thing is happening to deer in the UK.
    • Half of all camels that die on the Arabian Peninsula each year are killed by ingesting plastic bags, which form heavy calcareous lumps in their stomachs.
    • An Indian elephant was killed by eating plastic shopping bags in India in 2018.
    • In 2018, reindeer in Norway were killed by abandoned fishing nets.
    • Eight African elephants died in Zimbabwe in 2016 after eating plastic bread bags.

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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.

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  • 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?

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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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