Conservation Column: The Expanding Perils of Plastic Pollution

I have always been charmed by watching videos of bowerbirds decorating their bowers to attract females. Historically, they have decorated with colorful flowers, leaves, feathers, shells, and berries. But now the display sites contain a preponderance of plastic waste, including bottle caps and straws. 

During these difficult times, it is easy to get distracted from threats to bird populations. As a result, environmental protections are being rolled back at breakneck speed and habitat continues to be lost. Issues that were on our radar tend to fall aside as other concerns become paramount. One such issue is rampant plastic pollution, but recent reports remind us that the problem will not just fade away without a change in the way we do business. More than 80 percent of seabirds (some sources say 90 percent) were found to have plastic in their bellies. To get a feel for how fast the problem has grown, compare that to 1960 when that number was a mere 5 percent. When dead Laysan Albatross chicks were examined, plastic was found in more than 97 percent of them. The number of seabirds that die due to plastic is estimated to be one million per year. And that figure does not include other types of birds, nor both terrestrial and marine wildlife.

The UN estimates that 79 percent of the plastic ever produced has ended up in the environment. Only 9 percent has been recycled. And wherever the plastic ends up, it has a good chance of finding its way into waterways. These eventually dump it into the oceans, where it can persist for centuries.

Some reasons why plastic is such a problem for birds:

  • Plastic debris may look like food, smell like food, and float like food.
  • The animals fill up with plastic (no nutritional value) and basically starve to death.
  • Parents unwittingly collect plastic debris or prey containing microplastics to feed to their chicks.
  • Sharp edges may puncture the digestive tract and other internal organs.
  • Birds are at risk from the toxic effects of the chemical coating on plastics.
  • Birds (and other animals) become entangled in plastic debris.
  • For diving birds, the entanglement often results in drowning.
  • Tightly wrapped plastic leads to infection of the constricted area.
  • Restricted movement leads to greater risk from predators and less ability to forage.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A recent article in the journal Science (June 2020) used models to determine the efficacy of various interventions to reduce plastics. A major point was that mismanagement of plastic waste needs to be addressed globally. In many places, plastic is burned as a way to get rid of it. This is a major health hazard and does nothing to keep plastic particles out of the environment. In addition to environmental degradation, it is a social justice issue with severe health consequences that disproportionally affect communities with emerging economies. 

The authors note opportunities for improvement. They suggest that further investment in resource-efficient business models, reuse and refill systems, incentivizing collection for recycling, substitution of sustainable materials for plastics, better waste management technology, and focused government policies are necessary to reduce the problem of plastics. 

During this pandemic, we might need to alter our habits in ways that are less than ideal. Out of cautious necessity, the ban on plastic bags imposed by many states has been lifted. Stores may disallow reusable bags. Take-out service is on the rise meaning increased prevalence of single-use dishware and utensils. It’s ever more important to be aware of options and consequences.

What We Can Do About It 

  • Help raise awareness. This spring, the theme of World Migratory Bird Day was “Protect Birds: Be the Solution to Plastic Pollution!” 
  • Reduce your use of plastics, especially single-use, disposable plastic products. Cut out plastic cutlery, straws, single-use water bottles and cups. Drink tap water and utilize reusable water bottles.
  • Try sealing food with wax-coated cloth instead of plastic wrap.
  • Buy metal razors and wood-handled toothbrushes.
  • Don’t use balloons; find earth-friendlier ways to be festive. 
  • Use matches instead of plastic lighters (one of the most common items found in albatross bellies).
  • Avoid buying items packaged with excessive amounts of plastic. Buy items that come in paper and glass bottles. Buy bulk. 
  • Recycle whatever plastic you do use.
  • Support businesses that use sustainable packaging or offer plastic alternatives.
  • Participate in beach and community cleanups.
  • Let elected officials know that you support policies to reduce plastic, create and improve all facets of the recycling chain, and better manage plastic waste.