In 2019, American explorer Victor Vescovo broke the world record for the deepest submersible dive ever when he reached a depth of 10,927m in the Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest ocean feature. That’s just over 2000m more than the height of Everest. He spent four hours down there, and while discovering new species of crustaceans and admiring spoon worms and snailfish, he also had the profound displeasure of finding a plastic bag and some sweet wrappers. Finding plastic at the very bottom of the ocean is sadly not a shocking event; in fact, doing so is now becoming as commonplace as it is to see it on every street.
Since the 1970s, the rate of plastic production has surpassed every other manufactured item on the planet. It’s not surprising why, but the allure of plastic with its versatility, strength, and endurance are the very same factors which contribute to the problem of plastic pollution. The abundance of waste plastic on our planet is so advanced that it is now considered part of the Earth’s fossil record, a marker for our current era.
Our own actions regarding plastic use profoundly impacts the natural world, and birds in particular face dire consequences as they navigate a world increasingly overwhelmed by this ubiquitous waste.
Environmental helath inspectors
Plastic debris has accumulated in every habitat birds use – wetlands, forests, coastal areas, farmland, open prairies, jungle. As birds rely on these habitats for nesting, breeding, and foraging they are finding that their homes are disappearing, which means their populations are declining as the necessary balance of their ecosystem — achieved over millennia — is thwarted by just a few decades of plastics in the world.
Birds have long been recognized as crucial indicators of environmental health, often serving as the "canary in the coal mine" for broader ecosystem changes. Their susceptibility to even the slightest change in their environment means that by observing their behavior and well-being, researchers can gain valuable insight into the impact of plastic pollution on all ecosystems. Unfortunate for them, of course; birds are significantly affected, meaning they are particularly vulnerable.
Plastic waste, often in the form of microplastics where erosion and time has reduced the larger plastic products to their microscopic component parts, has accumulated in every nook and cranny of the habitats of thousands of terrestrial and aquatic bird species. Micro- and macro plastics were first detected in the organs and tissues of bird corpses in the 1960s, and as the years pass this cumulative presence can only negatively impact their survival, development, and reproductive output.
All at sea
Marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage estimate that 1 million seabirds are killed every year by marine plastic pollution. Over 300 million tonnes of plastic is now produced annually, profoundly impacting marine life because much of what we throw away is often dumped at sea or shipped to remote islands and buried in landfill, which then washes into the water when rain falls. Hundreds of seabird and coastal bird species have suffered great losses at our hands from our negligent plastic use.
Micro- and some macroplastics are very similar in size to the tiny marine organisms which constitute these birds’ diets, so they are easily mistaken for food: it is estimated that 78% of birds since the 1960s have plastic in their digestive tracts, predicted to rise to 99% by 2050. Intestinal blockages, malnutrition, and ultimately death are the only fates awaiting these birds. And it’s not just the tiny pieces – discarded fishing gear and other entangling macroplastics like grocery bags, six-pack plastic yokes, string, ribbons, deflated balloons and all manner of objects ensnares and drowns 100,000 marine animals every year; and those are just the ones that are found.
The Laysan albatross inhabits the North Pacific and has been used as a notable example of what these birds go through after consuming plastic. Albatrosses catch their food by skimming the ocean’s surface, and as plastic can float, they pick up huge amounts in their bills every time, consuming some of it but then sadly taking the rest back to their chicks during breeding season. Adult albatrosses can regurgitate some of what they eat but chicks cannot, and the plastic fills their stomachs and they die of malnutrition. There is one famous photograph of the corpse of a Laysan albatross chick whose decayed body has exposed the contents of its stomach which, being plastic, will never decay.
You can easily make out a disposable lighter and drink bottle tops lying among the tattered feathers. African penguins, already endangered from the effects of industrial-scale overfishing, also now face their second biggest threat in the form of plastic waste accumulating in their intestines via secondary food chain links – the fish they are eating have also consumed microplastics.
During breeding season, natural nest-building materials are now becoming scarcer and are often replaced with strands and chunks of plastic, creating fragile and unstable structures; when these inevitably give way, the chicks die either from starvation, cold, or predation. One recent study in Scotland found that 32% of herring gull nests, 53% of great black-backed gull nests and 80% of European shag nests contained plastic.
It is almost impossible to avoid plastic these days, but we can take active steps to be responsible with how we use it, what we do with it after we’ve used it, and where we buy it from. Single-use plastics are now rightly under the spotlight and great changes are being made to limit their availability and production, but we need to insist that every shop, café, restaurant and any establishment that uses them stops doing so, or we will take our trade elsewhere.
Recycled plastics is a hotly contested topic as some still contain BPA, bisphenol A, a polymer that can lead to abnormal brain development in babies and infants, cancer, miscarriages, and many other issues. BPA is used in production of all sorts of things like electronic components, sunglasses, CDs and DVDs, electric wire insulation, clothing, signs and poster boards, ceiling and floor tiles… When those plastics are recycled the BPA remains, so when buying items that state they are recycled, always check they are BPA-free.
To help save bird populations and mitigate the devastating effects of plastic pollution, urgent action is needed. On World Environment Day 2023, it is imperative that individuals, we who comprise our communities, as well as those in government and businesses come together to assess our devastating reliance on plastics, especially single-use items like straws, takeaway coffee cups, cutlery, balloons, and food containers.
The fact that plastic never decays means that anything ever made from plastic is still out there somewhere, and always will be. This amount will only ever increase as long as plastic is manufactured. We must be responsible for how we use and treat it if there is to be any hope for our birds and all life on this planet. As one global community, we can reduce this appalling situation by incorporating recycling and reusing materials into our daily lives, as well as insisting businesses develop sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics. This direct action will only lead to a better, healthier world for us and the birds that we love so much.