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90 Percent of Seabirds Have Eaten Plastic

And plastic pollution will threaten even more birds as production grows

(Joe McDonald/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Eight million tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean each year, and plastic pollution can produce catastrophic outcomes for marine life. Now, The Washington Post’s Elahe Izade reports on a sobering new statistic that shows the true extent of plastic in oceans: 90 percent of seabirds have ingested some form of plastic.

The number comes from a group of Australian researchers who reviewed literature on 135 species of seabird, writes Izade. They also ran computer models, learning that between 1962 and 2012, 29 percent of individual seabirds’ guts had plastic fragments and 60 percent of the species studied had ingested plastic fragments.

The new model estimates a current ingestion rate of 90 percent of individual seabirds — and the problem is getting worse. In fact, reports Izade, growing plastic production could lead to a 99 percent plastic ingestion rate by 2050.

The paper identifies a place scientists used to consider “relatively pristine” as a hotspot for plastic ingestion: the Tasman Sea. In fact, despite being far from the floating pile of plastic so immense it’s been labeled the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Tasman Sea might actually be more dangerous. Since it’s where the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans converge and holds a high diversity of birds, the Tasman Sea could be particularly dangerous for birds who mistake a bottle cap or plastic bag for food. In fact, the GPGP is relatively safe when it comes to animals eating plastic because few animals can sustain life there at all.

But there’s a bit of light in this dire prediction for the world’s soaring seabirds: Individual humans can help stop plastic pollution by recycling, reusing and preventing plastic from reaching oceans in the first place. Cities and municipalities can help, too. In a release, co-author Denise Hardesty points out that waste management is the key to reducing the plastic threat: “Even simple measures can make a difference, such as reducing packaging, banning single-use plastic items or charging an extra fee to use them, and introducing deposits for recyclable items like drink containers.”

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