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
2015
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.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

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...

Wildlife

Nature reserves and protected areas in Germany have lost 76…

Oceans

An investigation into shark fins and ray gills sold in…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Wildlife

The rapid spread of Asian hornets is likely to make…

Energy

Europe provides more than €112billion (£97billion) in subsidies to fossil…

Oceans

A study of various fish populations has found dramatic reductions…

Geophoto

The seasonal changes of September promise much photographic potential for…

Oceans

Shipping traffic can increase lightning strikes, according to a pioneering…

Polar

New documentary travels to remote Antarctica to unpack the complex…

Oceans

The deaths of these majestic creatures had remained an unsolved…

Wildlife

Over a two-year period, a new species of plant or…

Wildlife

As part of New Zealand’s plan to cull millions of…

Oceans

A project to map the ocean floor is raising concerns…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Wildlife

Dismay as a Spanish baby dolphin becomes the latest victim…

Polar

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Oceans

The effect of plastics on the world’s oceans is posing…

Geophoto

Camera technology may have come a long way since the…

Energy

The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn…

Wildlife

Despite their high profiles, most of the world’s national animal…