Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Plastic birds

Albatross carcass found on Midway Island in the central Pacific Ocean in the 1990s Albatross carcass found on Midway Island in the central Pacific Ocean in the 1990s Britta Denise Hardesty
08 Sep
Plastic waste in the oceans has become such a problem, it’s now being predicted that within fifty years every seabird will have ingested the material

Mistaken for food, the plastic we throw away can end up in the stomachs of seabirds, where it remains for the rest of the birds’ lives.  Finding these undigestible parts is not a new occurrence. In fact, scientific chronicles have been reporting the presence of plastics in seabirds for the last 50 years. What has changed, however, is how often plastic is found inside them and in what quantity. 

‘In the 1960s, five per cent of studies reported plastic in the guts of seabirds,’ explains Erik Van Sebille, oceanographer and lecturer at Imperial College London. ‘That has vastly increased to 80 per cent of seabirds today.’

By plotting these historical reports over time, a team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has predicted that 99 per cent of seabirds will be ingesting plastics by 2050, if current trends continue.  

The plastic that most endangers birds, however, is closer than often thought and sits relatively near to the coast. While the floating ‘garbage dump’ gyres in the middle of the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans pose environmental issues, they are less dangerous to seabirds simply because they are so far from land-bound nesting sites.

plasticScientist Britta Denise Hardesty with plastic dissected from the dead flesh-footed shearwater at her feet. After dissection, the amount of plastic in the bird filled her hands, and includes a doll arm, balloon ties, beverage lids and a variety of other fragments. The plastic made up eight per cent of the bird’s bodyweight (Image: Britta Denise Hardesty)

‘In some ways, the ocean currents are helping us by sweeping away all these plastics to the gyre areas where there is the least birdlife,’ says Sebille. If we were to stop polluting tomorrow, these garbage dumps would remain for decades but the coastal areas would clean themselves up pretty quickly for seabirds. ‘Luckily for us, the birds are eating in areas where the plastic is just passing through – places that are much easier to clear,’ says Sebille.

While the impact of the plastic is still largely unknown, it could be affecting their ability to feel hunger. ‘Some birds we’ve found have [the equivalent of] eight per cent of their body mass made up of plastics,’ says Sebille. ‘To a grown man, that’s the weight of two fat house cats that they are carrying around.’ For seabirds, the extra mass is not just an inconvenience as flight is vital to their survival.

Related items

Subscribe and Save!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


A ship that ran aground early in February has been…


Two whale populations on either side of the African continent…


March traditionally heralds the beginning of spring, a time of…


An innovative project to utilise Laos’ elephant experts in service…


Despite common belief that Antarctica is vastly uninhabited, humans are…


Javan rhinos survived the recent Krakatoa tsunami, but the species…


As the world turns away from fossil fuels, one question…


The winners of the Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2018…


New legislation in Florida aims to solve various environmental issues,…


The world’s magnetic model is getting an early update, as…


Marco Magrini looks at the financial pressures spilling out into the…


Few sights are more dramatic than a star-filled sky at…


A region of Antarctica previously known for relative stability is…


Everything we thought we knew about eruptions could be wrong


Sea levels are rising across the globe, but along the…


Seismometers buried in the Ross Ice Shelf have revealed that…


A tightening of restrictions on the insecticides known as neonicotinoids…


Bonnethead sharks, the second smallest member of the hammerhead family,…


There’s more than enough plastic in the world. That’s why,…


The recent discovery of more than 200 million termite mounds…