Impact on Animals

Did you know it’s possible to eat every day and still starve to death? That’s what happens to turtles and countless other marine animals that consume plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish. Eating a plastic bag makes a marine animal feel full, without providing any actual nutrition. Starvation isn’t the only issue; animals suffer blockage of the intestines and piercing of the intestinal wall. They can also die because of toxic chemicals that were used to create the plastic, or that were absorbed during the plastic’s journey through the ocean. Half of all sea turtles on the planet have ingested some form of plastic. Ninety per cent of all seabirds have consumed plastic. The fish that we eat consume plastic, essentially poisoning themselves. Pollution in the ocean is affecting all marine life, and, in turn, it affects humans as well. 

Birds

Birds can do some amazing things, partaking in the miracle of flight on a daily basis with bones as light as a feather. While these animals have many incredible abilities, digesting plastic is not one of them. New research suggests that 90% of the world’s seabirds have consumed plastic that still remains in their digestive organs. There are even some studies that suggests all seabirds will be eating plastic by 2050. Birds can mistake small plastic pellets for fish eggs, as well as other prey. Similar to turtles, plastic blocks the digestive tract and can cause them to either choke or starve to death. Not to mention the poisonous levels of toxicity that the plastic contains. You may be wondering, how is it that 90% of all birds are ingesting plastic? How could that number even be possible? Birds begin ingesting harmful plastic as soon as they hatch when their mothers unknowingly regurgitate plastic to feed their young. One study found 98% of all Laysan Albatross chicks were fed some sort of plastic. It’s hard to predict what a devastating impact this could have on birds and the environment.

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Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

 

Turtles

Carrying your house on your back can be a huge weight on your shoulders. For a turtle, this is life. But a big issue for these creatures is ingesting plastic. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Queensland 52% of all seas turtles have ingested some form of plastic. A primary part of a turtle’s diet is jellyfish, but they have trouble differentiating them from trash — a floating plastic bag, for instance, can look similar to a turtle’s prey. Ingested plastic can block digestion and cause starvation. Aside from starvation, a turtle can also die from toxic chemicals that were used when creating the plastic, or other toxic chemicals that were absorbed by the plastic in its journey through the ocean. Apart from digestion, plastic can affect turtles in a much more visible way. A common six-pack ring can get caught around a turtle and as the turtle grows its shell eventually grows around the ring, deforming the turtle. This stunts the growth of many internal organs and the animal eventually dies a slow, agonizing death. We encourage you to check out the story of Peanut, a turtle who got a six-pack holder stuck around her at a young age, changing her life forever.

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Courtesy of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

 

Sea Lions & Seals

Seals have often been called the dogs of the ocean for their playful demeanor, swimming alongside surfers, sometimes even hopping on board, or playing with actual dogs at the beach. However, the food they have to eat is far from kibble and, in the wild, the hoops they have to go through aren’t hula. In the late 1970s, scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory observed that plastic entanglement was killing 40,000 seals a year. In the last 30 years, the Northern Fur Seals population has decreased by 50% due to pollution in the ocean. This isn’t exclusive to seals. It’s all pinnipeds, seals, sea lions and walruses. Last June, the Vancouver Aquarium reported approximately 400 sea lions entangled in debris in the wild. To free each animal costs roughly $2,000. In addition to ingesting and entanglement, it also affects their way of living as well. As pollution increases, so do greenhouse gas emissions, causing the planet’s air and water temperatures to increase, while turning the ocean more acidic. Scientists at the NOAA have predicted that by 2050, summers in the Arctic may be ice-free. Many animals, such as seals and sea lions are literally getting tangled up in our mess.

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Adult female Steller sea lion plastic band entanglement, slicing into neck. © AK Dept. of Fish & Game, research activities were conducted pursuant to a NMFS Permit.

 

 Whales


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Polar Bears

While the animals in the ocean are being plagued by our plastic pollution, the wildlife on land don’t have it much easier. As animal populations decrease due to plastic consumption, the animals next in line on the food chain in turn get affected as well. You may have noticed a trend developing, and it’s quite simple, no one is immune. It’s hard to see any similarities between a small child who loves sushi, and a fierce polar bear in the Arctic. But when it comes to the dangers of plastic pollution, they are in the same boat.

 

Plastic in the food chain poses one of the greatest risks to endangered polar bears. They mainly live off seals and fish, two animals that are highly impacted by plastic pollution. After a polar bear gives birth, she stays with her cubs in her den for six months without eating. She survives off the seal fat her body has stored, fat that is essentially poisoned with plastic. In this video, Tanja Marusic takes a look at the devastating impact of plastic on this iconic animal.

Humans

At this point, we hope you’re fully aware of just how serious plastic pollution is for wildlife —how a simple plastic bag can mean life or death for a young animal. However, even if you’re someone who doesn’t care for wildlife, the fact remains that you’re at the top of the food chain. The salmon that you ate had a life before it ended up on your plate. There’s a pretty good chance that at one point in its life, it came into contact with plastic, and ingested microbeads, which essentially poisoned the fish. You are what you eat has never been more true. Did you know that due to plastic pollution, the fish you eat contain chemicals that could cause testicular cancer and lower sperm counts, or raise the chance of breast cancer for women? One of the most talked about chemicals is BPA. Check out the graphic below to find out how it might put you at risk.

 
Credit: Hillary Johnson