You probably think that our birds in the skies are safe from the dangers from the plastics on earth. Think again. 

The effects of plastic pollution on birds and marine life around the world has been immeasurable. The global scale of plastic production around the world unfortunately and in evidently ends up in our oceans. Every year, more than 8 million tons of plastic waste is thrown into the sea. Plastic all around the world is left from our cities streets, suburban streets, public streets, land dumps, sewage systems end up to our lakes and rivers. It travels down canal systems, sewage systems, rivers and almost always end up in our oceans. Unfortunately, if we allow the situation to continue as it has been for the past century, the situation will be extremely dire to marine life, seabirds and ecosystem.

How many birds die from plastic pollution in the ocean each year?

According to WWF, there are an estimated 1 million birds per year dying as a result of plastic pollution in the ocean. This stat is, even more, worrisome when we take into consideration how the problem is exponentially getting worse and how quickly it has grown in the past decades. 

According to National Geographic in a 1960 study, there were 5% of seabirds with plastic in their stomachs. Since then, the effects of plastic pollution on birds has catapulted to 80% in 1980.

Furthermore, studies have shown that by “2050, 99% of all seabird species will be ingesting plastic”. Ingestion of plastic isn’t the only contribution from plastic waste that cause death to seabird species. The effects of plastic pollution on birds also causes, ‘entanglement’. This is another cause of death from plastics, further emphasising that awareness needs to be spread to mitigate this issue as soon as possible.

Effects of plastic pollution on birds. Plastic rubbish floating in the ocean.
Photo taken of floating rubbish and plastic pollution in the ocean.

Why do birds eat plastic?

  1. Dimethyl Sulfide

Dimethyl Sulfide, or DMS, is caused by microscopic organisms such as krill or plankton feeding on the algae of plastic debris floating across the ocean. Studies show that DMS is similar to natural scents to tube-nosed birds such as the albatrosses, petrels, and shearwater, follow when hunting for food. This is due to DMS giving away the presence of clouds plankton, which make it intensely alluring to seabirds.

  1. Appearance

Larger and newer pieces of plastics that are newly put and float across the ocean eventually break down into microplastics. These microplastics do not go away and stay afloat at sea as plastic is not biodegradable. As an end result, these small particles of plastics can easily be mistaken for prey and end up consumed by seabirds and marine animals.

  1. They float. 

The light mass of the plastic and especially micro-plastics cause them to stay afloat. The plastic’s lightweight structure is a huge contribution to the problem.

Seabird suffering from entanglement from fishing line. Effects of plastic pollution on birds.
Seabird suffering from entanglement from multiple fishing lines.

What happens to birds that consume plastic?

The plastic consumption for seabirds and its impacts on the animal is dependent on what they actually consume. For instance, if a bird were to consume a sharp plastic object, it could puncture their internal organs, resulting in some birds dying quickly. However, others may die due to starvation as they are not able to process the plastic through their body. Birds that have a stomach filled with plastic feel full,but receive no nutritional benefit.

Furthermore studies have shown that toxic effects of the chemicals that coat plastics also kill seabirds

Another tragedy occurs when adult birds leave their nests in order to hunt to provide food for their chicks. Mistakenly, birds eat plastic that they believe is fish and regurgitate it to their chicks. Juvenile seabird’s smaller stomachs are even less able to deal with the effects of the plastic and many die quickly.

Research photo taken of bird that suffered death from plastic ingestion.
Research photo taken of bird that suffered death from plastic ingestion.

How do birds die from plastic entanglement?

The consumption of plastic is not the only process that kills seabirds. Entanglement is caused by fishing lines, fishing equipment, plastic bags and general plastic waste. This involves seabirds that get stuck in plastic waste, which can cause infection and starvation. To reaffirm, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans every year. With such a large amount of plastic waste entering the world’s ocean, it is almost impossible for birds to avoid getting stuck or ingesting any of the plastic floating and affecting marine life. 

One of the worst contributions to plastic entanglement is abandoned fishing gear. Abandoned fishing gear is caused by traps that are lost throughout the sea during fishing and other activities. This happens on a worldwide scale. The discarded equipment continues to catch birds and wildlife in a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’. The effects of plastic pollution on birds caused by ghost fishing has accounted for one-fifth of all seabird species, affected by entanglement or ingestion of plastic waste.

Plastic bag caught on bird. Another form of entanglement.
Image captured of entangled bird caught on a plastic bag.

What happens to birds that become entangled in plastic?

This is truly dependant of what the situation the bird is in and how the animal has become entangled. However, outcomes may include:

  • Drowning in nets – For gannets, penguins and other birds that dive for their food, becoming caught in underwater plastic will mean they can’t get back to the surface, and so they drown. 
  • Risk of infection – If the plastic is tightly wrapped it can cut the bird, leading to infection. 
  • Losing the ability to move – Being tied by fishing equipment or stuck can mean that birds aren’t able to escape from natural predators or die due to starvation.

Furthermore, when ingested, plastic waste can cause air bubbles to appear in seabird’s stomachs. This causes seabirds that are reliant on diving for their food, unable to do so and therefore die from starvation.

Aftermath photo of bird with a large quantity of plastic in its stomach.
Aftermath image of bird with a large quantity of plastic in its stomach.

What can I do to stop the effects of plastic pollution on birds?

The issue is that plastic takes centuries and even hundreds of years to simply break down. And when broken down, they aren’t actually gone, they’re turned into micro-plastics with is still ingested by seabirds and larger animals such as whales. This isn’t an issue that is going to vanish.

It can be disheartening hearing such large figures and statistics of birds and marine life that have been affected by plastic waste, but individual efforts can truly come a long way. With the action of one individual, can come with massive ripple effects and massive action from communities. Here are some of the ideas to minimise the risk of plastic pollution:

  • Use social media to spread awareness to your friends and family. Take the pledge today to #ReduceYourUse
  • Ensure all plastic use is sorted, recycled and reused.
  • Participate in communal and beach clean ups.

Our Mission

Our mission and first responsibility are to eliminating plastic and ocean pollution affecting all the humans and marine life on the planet.