Everybody knows by now that plastic pollution getting worse. Each year another 12.5 million tons of plastic enters the ocean.
You probably have seen the horrible pictures in which seabirds and fish are cut open and the stomach is full with non-digestible plastic. Especially albatrosses and shearwaters mistake plastic for fish eggs. That’s the plastic we can see and which we won’t eat because, obviously, you generally don’t eat stomach content of animals. Unfortunately it gets a lot worse. There is also plastic you can hardly see and you’re eating it without knowing, ironically often at the same time as the food and health authorities of many western countries recommend eating fish two or three times a week. The hard to see plastic is microplastic or microbeads, particles that are smaller than 5mm, now spread throughout all oceans.
Unfortunately microplastic can be found in a lot of (beauty) products, ranging from shampoo to tooth paste. If you are curious how how many products you are using with microplastic in it, you can get a whole list here. Oh, and theres a handy app to take shopping too.
It is not a rare example anymore that birds have plastic in their stomach or guts. Nine out of ten birds are now found with plastic inside their body, while it was estimated that only 30% of the birds would have plastic in their guts. By 2050, 99% of the birds is expected to have plastic in their body. In comparison: in 1960 5% of the birds had plastic in their stomach. Several lists exist of what plastic items are most commonly found on a beach and therefore eaten by birds. Straws and bottle caps are always high on any list. Birds in the southern ocean south of Australia, South Africa and South America are affected most, with up to 200 pieces of plastic in their bodies.
Fish are not doing much better. Juvenile perch that eat a lot of microbeads are smaller, slower and easier to catch for predators. Given the choice to eat zooplankton and plastic they actually prefer plastic over their normal diet, which leads to an increased death rate. Oysters, clams sold in the supermarket also have plastic in their guts. Most people will not eat stomachs of birds, but we do eat the complete oyster and clam, meaning we are eating plastic as well. It is not (yet) known how humans will react on this accumulating plastic in our stomach or guts.
Plastic is now found everywhere on earth. Even in the Mariana trench, at 11.000 m depth, as recently witnessed by a ROV
. As such, of course deep sea animals like hermit crabs, lobsters and sea cucumbers have plastic in their body.
There is a lot of negative news about plastic. The good thing is we as individuals can still make a difference. A lot of countries are not handing out plastic bags for free anymore. The US has actually banned microbeads in products since 2015 and more countries are slowly following, like the UK by the end of 2017. France has recently forbidden the use of single use plastic cutlery. You can take an active role in using products without microbeads and think about how you can diminish your plastic consumption. It won’t change the world overnight, but if we try to make an effort we can still do something the problem.