Plastic pollution wreaking havoc; 90% of all sea birds have ingested plastic

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A new study that looked into the menace of plastic pollution and its impact on sea birds has claimed that as many as 60 per cent of birds are ingesting plastic and if the trend continues, by 2050, 99 per cent of birds will have plastic in their guts.

The findings are a results of a research carried out by researchers at CSIRO and Imperial College London wherein researchers looked in to the severity and extent of the impact of plastic pollution on sea birds including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins.

A team of researchers led by Dr Chris Wilcox carried out an extensive analysis of all related studies published since 1960 and they found that plastic ingestion is becoming an increasingly common thing in sea birds. Back in 1960, the extent of plastic ingestion in individual species was about 5 per cent, but over the course of four decades, that has increased to up to 80 per cent in individual species.

Though researchers have found 60 per cent of sea birds as having ingested plastic, they estimate that up to 90 per cent of all sea bird species have ingested some form of plastic in their lifetime. If the current trend of pollution continues, 99 per cent of all sea birds would have ingested traffic, the researchers predict.

According to a study published earlier this year in February, a whopping 8.8 million tons of plastic is being fed to the oceans annually. Researchers of the study warned that if countries and people around the world don’t take an action and put a check on how they throw stuff away, then by 2025 the total accumulated plastic trash in the oceans will reach around 170 million tons.

In the latest study, researchers revealed that the different types of plastic that has been ingested by birds include bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibres from synthetic clothes, which have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits. During their field work researchers found whopping 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird.

“We predict, using historical observations, that 90 per cent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution”, Dr Wilcox said.

One of the main reasons birds end up ingesting these pollutants is that they are attracted to brightly coloured objects mistaking them as food. Researchers also believe that birds end up ingesting small bits of plastic accidentally while consuming other food. These plastic items leads to gut impaction, weight loss and sometimes even death of these birds. There have been instances wherein marine animals have been wounded because of plastic items.

Dr Denise Hardesty from CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere and one of the co-authors of the study published in the journal PNAS believes sea birds as being an excellent indicator of ecosystem health.

According to Dr van Sebille, co-author of the study, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London plastic pollutants have the greatest and most devastating impact in areas where there is huge biodiversity with respect to animals.

Researchers added that the plastic that is being deposited into oceans will have the greatest impact on wildlife where they gather in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.

One of the things that can be done to prevent the situation from deteriorating further is to implement proper waste management. Further simple measures like banning of plastic as a packaging material or banning single-use plastic containers and bags or imposing a charge for use of plastic bags are some of the steps that can be taken to reduce plastic usage.

“Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs with less than a decade, which suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time”, Dr Hardesty said.

“Scientists, the private sector and global citizens working together against the growing onslaught of plastic pollution can reduce plastic inputs to help protect marine biodiversity”, said Chief Scientist at the US-based Ocean Conservancy Dr George H. Leonard.

Microplastics are another danger that have been showing off their impact lately. Microplastics in the form of microbeads are as used replacement to natural exfoliating materials in cosmetics and have been reported in a variety of products such as hand cleansers, soaps, toothpaste, shaving foam, bubble bath, sunscreen and shampoo.

According to a recently published research almost 100,000 tiny ‘microbeads’ – each a fraction of a millimetre in diameter – could be released in every single application of certain products, such as facial scrubs.

Professor Richard Thompson at Plymouth University, who has been studying the effects of litter in the marine environment for over 20 years, warns that these plastic microbeads are causing unnecessary contamination of the oceans. With microplastics now entering the marine food chain, they can be ingested by fish and shellfish and there is evidence from laboratory studies of adverse effects on marine organisms.

Private organisations have started working in the direction of reducing the impact of plastic on marine animals and marine ecosystem as a whole with Adidas being the first company that has made the first ever shoe upper created entirely of yarns and filaments reclaimed and recycled from ocean waste and illegal deep-sea gillnets.

Ocean Cleanup is another such organisation which has taken up the task of findings ways to clean up the oceans. Recently the organisation completed a reconnaissance mission of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a first step in its project beginning in 2020 under which it intends to cleanup the large area and make it plastic-free.