If you’ve ever walked the beaches after a winter storm, you can see the remnants of our “throw it away” society.

Laysan Albatrosses nesting among plastic debris on Midway Atoll in Pacific Ocean
Laysan Albatrosses nesting among plastic debris on Midway Atoll in Pacific Ocean. Photo by Jay Holcomb

Bits of plastic debris litter the shore: bottle caps, toys, cigarette lighters, fishing line and other garbage. Scientists are now documenting how this surge of plastic trash leaves a wake of death and disease that directly affects seabirds.

In many areas of the globe, birds inadvertently feed on plastic floating on the water, mistaking it for food, and many times this ingestion leads to death and even the death of their young. A report by scientists studying the stomach content of Laysan Albatross chicks on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean revealed disturbing results: Forty percent of Laysan Albatross chicks die before fledging. Necropsies of the chick’s stomachs found them filled with plastic trash.

Large plastic detritus such as bottles and packaging has well-known effects on sea life, strangling birds and fish and transporting alien species to new waters. Millimeter-sized plastic pellets-the building blocks of larger products-clog U.S. harbors and soak up toxic chemicals from seawater, poisoning the creatures that swallow them.

Because plastic pellets are magnets for toxic chemicals like DDT and PCBs, they effectively become poison pills. Japanese researchers found that concentrations of these chemicals were as much as a million times higher than in the water. Plastics themselves can leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals like biphenyl.

Brown Pelican snared by fish hook in Mexico. Photo by Jay Holcomb
Brown Pelican snared by fish hook in Mexico. Photo by Jay Holcomb

Especially lethal is discarded fishing gear. Millions of tons of cut line, lines with hooks, and nets litter our oceans causing cause slow, painful deaths to everything from tiny seabirds to whales. Many of the birds that come to International Bird Rescue’s rehabilitation centers are impacted by fishing line and hooks, having ingested and/or been debilitated by carelessly discarded monofilament line that has wrapped around their limbs and wings.

What we know:

  • Plastic water bottles take 450 years to decompose;
  • Fishing lines and nets can take up to 600 years to decompose; and
  • Plastic bags or balloons in the ocean are dangerous (they can look like a jellyfish meal to a sea turtle).

What we all can do:

  • Reduce our use of disposable plastic products;
  • Reuse and recycle what we can;
  • Buy reusable grocery bags to cut down on plastic bag use;
  • Tell others about the dangers of marine debris;
  • Pick up litter;
  • Volunteer for beach and stream clean-ups;
  • Remind others not to release balloons into the atmosphere.

Also see:

The global oil spill is plastic

Surfrider Australia’s Rise Above Plastics

Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas, Los Angeles Times