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Seabirds Are Eating a Heckuva Lot of Plastic

Renee Farris headshotWords by Renee Farris
Energy & Environment
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A new study found that most seabirds have plastic in their guts, and we're not talking about the pink flamingos on your neighbor's lawn.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, examined 186 species of pelagic seabirds. In case you’re not up to date on birdology (yes, that's a word), pelagic seabirds include albatrosses, puffins and storm petrels. These birds spend most of their time chillin’ on the open seas. They’re not beachcombers like seagulls. Therefore, you’d expect these seabirds to reflect how much trash is in the ocean while excluding beach trash.

How did the researchers figure out that most sea birds eat plastic? They looked at studies conducted between 1962 and 2012 then used models to determine that, if the studies were done today, up to 90 percent of the seabirds would have plastic in their guts. In other words, if a seabird Instagramed its breakfast, you might see plastic bottle caps.

How bad is it? The ocean can contain as many as 580,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer (0.386 square miles). Imagine if your house floor was covered in thousands of Lego pieces, and then you had to eat those Lego pieces for breakfast. Now you know what it feels like to be a seabird.

Earlier this year, a study estimated that 4 million to 12 million metric tons of plastic invaded the ocean in 2010. Not only is that number incomprehensible, but it's also 4.5 percent of all plastic produced. As plastic production increases, more and more plastic will get washed into oceans. Unless plastic is someday made from fish (read: that will never happen), this is just not cool for seabirds.

When a bird gulps down a large piece of plastic, it can obstruct its gut and the animal may die. Also, plastic in the gut means there’s less room for real food … which also means it might die. Additionally, plastic doesn’t decompose for 450 to 600 years, which also means seabirds are more likely … to die. I wish I was done, but there’s more: Plastic such as fishing lines and hooks can get wrapped around birds and other sea life … causing them to die. A 2012 study examined the contents of 67 northern fulmars’ stomachs and discovered an average of 37 pieces of plastic in the birds’ guts. Those birds, you guessed it, had died.

All of this is more than a little depressing, so what’s the solution? Don’t use plastic. And if you do, make sure to properly discard it. Also, jumping on board with campaigns seeking to ban microbeads and plastic bags is a good start.

The only bird that looks good in plastic is a yellow rubber duckie. But honestly, I wouldn’t buy that either. Get your kids a fish aquarium instead so they can connect with real nature.

Image credit: Flickr/óskar elías sigurðsson

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

Read more stories by Renee Farris