Why does plastic pose such a problem for our oceans?
It is a widely acknowledged problem and for many years environmental charities have campaigned to clean up the ocean. The very visible impact of plastic waste can be seen on coastlines around the world, and its impact on wildlife is tragically being seen more and more often. Most of us will have seen the distressing pictures of birds entangled in plastic debris, causing them to be strangled or starve to death. However, studies are increasingly showing that there is also a range of non-lethal threats posed by plastic that are less visible, but nevertheless terrible damaging.
Sea birds ingest more plastic
Studies around the world have shown that plastic poses a particular problem for sea birds who feed from the ocean. Plastic can both look and smell like food to these hungry birds. Natural algae may quickly coat the plastic particles, confusing the natural smells that predatory creatures use to hunt. This is particularly problematic for the species of birds which feed by skimming the surface of the water, such as the albatross. Its lightweight nature means that small pieces of plastic often float on the surface, making it incredibly easy for them to ingest.
Rare and endangered species under threat
Strong winds and currents can quickly spread plastic particles to even the most remote areas of the world. This means that rare and endangered species can still be threatened by plastic waste, even if they are nowhere near heavily populated areas.
The impact on long-term survival
Research from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies showed that sea birds in areas badly impacted by plastic pollution had stunted growth, lower body mass and reduced kidney function. Although this had not proved to be fatal to individual birds, the overall health of the population was thought to have been affected by plastic ingestion. Scientists believe that the consumption of plastic is likely to lead to birds feeling full, but without them gaining any nutritional benefit – thus lowering their overall weight. The long-term impacts on the populations could be devastating, with reproductive health and long-term survival likely to be influenced by lower average body weights.
Thus the terrible impact that plastic is having on the oceans may be seen for years to come, unless we can find an effective way to reduce pollution, clean up the oceans, and encourage plastic recycling to sustainable levels.