The role plastic products play in the daily lives of people all over the world is interminable. We could throw statistics at you all day long (e.g. Upwards of 300 MILLION tons of plastic are consumed each year), but the impact of these numbers border on inconceivable.
For those living on the coasts, a mere walk on the beach can give anyone insight into how staggering our addiction to plastic has become as bottles, cans, bags, lids and straws (just to name a few) are ever-present. In other areas that insight is more poignant as the remains of animal carcasses can frequently be observed; the plastic debris that many of them ingested or became entangled in still visible long after their death. Sadly, an overwhelming amount of plastic pollution isn’t even visible to the human eye, with much of the pollution occurring out at sea or on a microscopic level.
The short-lived use of millions of tons of plastic is, quite simply, unsustainable and dangerous. We have only begun to see the far-reaching consequences of plastic pollution and how it affects all living things. According to a study from Plymouth University, plastic pollution affects at least 700 marine species, while some estimates suggest that at least 100 million marine mammals are killed each year from plastic pollution.
Here are some of the marine species most deeply impacted by plastic pollution.
1. Sea Turtles
Like many other marine animals, sea turtles mistake plastic waste for a viable food source, sometimes causing blockages in their digestive system. Though the declining sea turtle populations in the oceans are due to a variety of factors (most all of which involve human exploitation), plastic pollution plays a significant role.
Separate studies from 2013 suggest as many as 50 percent of sea turtles are ingesting plastic at an unprecedented rate, and dying because of it. Another study of the Loggerhead species found that 15 percent of young turtles examined had ingested such enormous quantities of plastic that their digestive system was obstructed.
2. Seals and Sea Lions
Marine life can become entangled in a variety of ocean debris including fishing nets, lines, and lures. Still, there are a number of seals and sea lions that become entangled in plastic bags or plastic packing bands leading to injury and death.
In fact, plastic packing bands and rubber bands continue to deeply impact the Steller Sea Lion population. An eight-year study in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia documented 388 sea lions entangled in plastic debris. These plastic packing bands and rubber bands can become so embedded in the animal that it can lead to severe infection and death.
Plastic pollution leads to the deaths of millions of marine bird species each year. Arguably more so than other birds, the Laysan albatross has been deeply impacted by plastic debris through their hunting techniques. When the albatross dives into the ocean to catch fish, squid or other food they use their beak to skim the surface, picking up plastic along the way.
Shockingly, an estimated 98 percent of albatross studied are found having ingested some kind of plastic debris. Once the plastic has been ingested, it causes an obstruction in the digestive tract and can puncture internal organs.
Fish, along with pretty much any marine mammal that brings in water through its gills, are increasingly at risk to microscopic plastic debris. A study performed at the University of Exeter UK suggested that microscopic marine debris could take up to six times as long for the animal to rid themselves of in comparison to ingesting the debris orally.
Of course plastic pollution deeply impacts species of fish, but unlike other animals on our list, this is the one animal that’s also commonly eaten by humans. A number of studies suggest that the fish humans continue to consume have at one time or another ingested plastic microfibers, including brown trout, cisco, and perch.
5. Whales and Dolphins
Like other marine mammals, whales often mistakes marine debris for a potential food source. In some species, similar to that of the albatross, the whales mouth is so large it unknowingly picks up plastic debris (a technique observed in baleen whales). Necropsies performed after numerous whale strandings saw an increase in the amount of plastic debris found.
A study also found that hundreds of species of cetaceans have been negatively impacted by plastic pollution in the past two decades. The obstructions often puncturing and tearing the stomach lining, leading to starvation and death. According to Marine Pollution Bulletin, cetaceans are ingesting plastic debris at a rate as high as 31 percent, and in turn, 22 percent of those cetaceans were at an increased risk of death.
What Can You Do?
It’s clear that plastic pollution impacts virtually every living organism in, or thriving off of, the oceans of our world. This is simply not acceptable. The balance of our ecosystem is essential to our quality of life and will ultimately depend on when the world decides to stop turning a blind eye to the issue and make the necessary lifestyle changes.
We all must remain diligent as we work to minimize our own individual consumption of plastic products. So, whether you’re just beginning the journey to minimizing plastic in your life or not, there are a few key steps that never hurt to repeat.
Clean Up After Yourself
Sounds pretty self-explanatory, right? If you’re on the beach or at the park, be mindful of a “leave with what you came with” policy. It also doesn’t hurt to pick up after your neighbors if you notice they may have left a few things behind. Beach cleanups are a great way to help the environment and meet like-minded individuals who want to reduce their plastic footprint.
It’s simple to apply this to your everyday life by recycling in your own home. Most public places now offer waste versus recycling options, too. If you happen to be out, and you don’t see an area for recyclables, simply ask. Worst case scenario is you’re forced to take a plastic bottle or bag home with you and recycle it on your own.
When You Can: Just Say No
We understand that going completely plastic free is challenging for most families, but we all know plastic consumption isn’t always well, necessary. Saying no to straws, buying in bulk and bringing your own reusable bags grocery shopping are just a few of the many ways you can cut down on the amount of plastic you’re consuming.
For more information, check out these great articles:
- Why We Need to Tackle Plastic Pollution
- How Plastic Pollution Impacts Land Animals
- 5 Myths (and Truths) About Plastic Pollution
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