Since 1960, we’ve been finding plastic in the stomachs of seabirds, but back then, it was less than 5% of individual birds who faced this problem. According to scholars from CSIRO and Imperial College London, by 2010 that 5% had risen to 80%. Now, according to a new study, roughly 90% of seabirds have likely ingested plastic in some form or another and by 2050, 99% of all seabird species will have done so.
Seabirds eat plastic because they mistake it for food, or sometimes ingest it accidentally while catching fish and other prey. That plastic often gets impacted and can cause serious problems for seabirds, such as weight loss or even death. Most of that plastic comes from improper waste management, where it gets into rivers leading from urban environments to the sea. Although there are a number of large, swirling masses of plastic and other garbage floating in the ocean, most of those are in the middle of nowhere, with few animals around.
The birds most affected live around the Southern Ocean, a band of water that stretches from the southern tips of South America to Africa to Australia. Luckily, according to the researchers, even small steps can significantly impact the situation. Efforts to reduce plastic in the environment in Europe resulted in measurable reductions in the amount of plastic being ingested by seabirds. This means that, with some effort, we can probably do a lot more good, even before 2050.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that we’ve heard about the problem of plastics contaminating the ocean. Remember those plastic rings that used to hold together six-packs of soda or beer? When it became apparent that they were making their way into the ocean and causing problems for a variety of animals, we all jumped to cut them up so they couldn’t strangle birds, and eventually phased them out of use. But the plastics problem still got worse.
Maybe this time we can do better.