Why the world citizens should care
Plastic pollution in the ocean is not only harmful to marine animals, it can be deadly and ultimately affect the most marginalized communities that rely on biodiversity. The United Nations Global Goal 14 calls on countries to reduce plastic waste and prevent pollution from entering the oceans. Join Global Citizen and take action here.
It has long been known that plastics in the ocean pose a threat to the health and survival of marine species. A new study now shows which types of plastic are most dangerous and which animals are most at risk.
After reviewing hundreds of scientific articles and studies, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian government agency, found that plastic bags and flexible packaging are the deadliest plastic objects in the ocean.
Discarded fishing lines and nets, as well as latex gloves and balloons, were found to be disproportionately fatal compared to other types of marine debris that animals mistakenly eat. This is evident from the study published this month in the journal Conservation Letters.
“Death from ingesting any of these items is not rapid and is unlikely to be painless,” Lauren Roman, a marine ecologist who led the study, told the Guardian. “It’s a pretty terrible way to die.”
CSIRO researchers analyzed 655 scientific articles on marine debris and 79 studies on marine species deaths. During this review, they found that ingestion of plastic was responsible for the deaths of 80 species, including whales, dolphins, turtles, seabirds, seals and sea lions.
Whales, dolphins and turtles were particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastic wrap. Seabird deaths were often associated with ingestion of hard plastic pieces and balloons. In seals and sea lions, fishing lines and nets were found to be the deadliest type of plastic for these species.
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“For the first time we quantified what is being eaten, what is fatal and then [are going to] see which [of the items] can be controlled by guidelines, ”said Roman.
This is especially important because while there is a lot of plastic in the ocean, some species are more harmful than others.
Rubber, for example, turned out to be disproportionately lethal. Flexible plastic for bags and packaging is also particularly dangerous because it is so common and can wrinkle to block an animal’s digestive system.
The death of this marine species is part of the bigger picture of biodiversity loss due to man-made causes such as land and water pollution, which disproportionately affect the world’s most marginalized communities. Biodiversity forms the bedrock of human society by providing clean air and water, soil to promote food production, a stable climate, and much more.
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In light of the review, researchers recommended policymakers to focus on reducing plastics through regulation, bans, and replacement of items that have been shown to cause high mortality.
Many companies and countries have taken steps in recent years to reduce single-use plastics. Most recently, in October, England officially banned plastic straws, drinking stirrers and cotton swabs.
According to Richard Leck, Head of Oceans at World Wildlife Fund Australia, the COVID-19 pandemic has likely resulted in an increase in plastic use.
“This study shows us that we need to get that momentum back,” he told the Guardian. “It’s important to remember what happens to these animals when they ingest these plastics. It is a terrible death. When turtles ingest plastic bags, they cannot submerge. Marine mammals waste over weeks and weeks. “
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Plastic flow into the ocean is expected to triple by 2040 if current trends continue and reach up to 29 million tons per year. With more plastic in the ocean, marine animals are at greater risk of their deadly effects.
Support for the United Nations Global Treaty on Plastic Pollution has grown to include two-thirds of member states. However, the US and UK – the two largest per capita waste producers according to the Guardian – have not yet endorsed the treaty or called for a new deal.