About eight million tons of plastic waste get dumped into the world’s oceans each year—and it’s wreaking havoc on the lives of seabirds across the planet.
A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Australian and British scientists analyzed decades’-worth of environmental reports in an attempt to see how seabirds’ exposure to plastic debris has changed over time.
What they found was that 90% of seabirds living today have ingested some form of plastic, mistaking it for fish. Since this material is not able to pass through the animal, these birds are likely to die as a result. The scientists’ data also showed that in 1960, fewer than 5% of birds would have eaten plastic. And by 2050, 99% of seabirds will carry plastic in their guts.
Here’s Jonathan Amos, reporting for BBC News:
To get to its 2050 extrapolation, the team had to understand the hotspots of risk, by overlaying the known foraging behaviour of the world’s 400 or so seabird species on to the known distribution of plastic waste at sea.
This approach demonstrated that the regions of highest risk are not where most floating plastic congregates, which is in the centres of the great ocean gyres, sometimes dubbed “garbage patches” or “islands” for the way the debris just goes round and round.
Rather, the zones of highest concern are where most seabirds are found, which is in a band in the Southern Ocean, near Australia, South Africa and South America.
These areas, unlike ocean “garbage patches,” aren’t notorious for containing large amounts of plastic. But the researchers say that the concentration of birds there is the greatest—so that’s where the most harm is being done.
The good news is that the situation isn’t irreversible. If policymakers can put measures in place that would immediately improve solid waste management practices, then the deep reservoir of plastic filling our oceans could be depleted and our wildlife saved.