While plastic waste tossed into oceans is a known concern, a recent study brings it home to the effect plastic is having on seabirds. That is, researchers say that roughly 90 percent of live seabirds have consumed plastic, and that about 60 percent of these birds have plastic in their bellies. In previous fieldwork, study co-author Denise Hardesty, at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird.
"This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution," Chris Wilcox, lead author and senior research scientist at CSIRO, said in a news release.
Under current conditions, this number will only increase. The researchers estimated in their release that by 2050, 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested some form of plastic.
A previous study that Wilcox worked on found that more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans from land each year.
"We've known for some time that the magnitude of plastic pollution is daunting," Frank Davis, University of California Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) Director, said in the release. "This study is important in revealing the pervasive impact of that plastic on seabirds."
The researchers analyzed past studies as well and found that from 1960 to 2010 the percentage of plastic found in seabirds jumped from 5 percent to 80 percent. They also noted that birds living around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America would experience the greatest plastic impact.
So why do these seabirds eat the plastic floating in oceans? Because they mistake the colorful items for food and swallow them by accident. The plastic is found as plastic fibers from synthetic clothes, bags, and bottle caps, and washes to the ocean from waste deposits, rivers, and sewers.
"Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife," Hardesty said in the release. "Even simple measures can make a difference. Efforts to reduce plastics dumped into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs in less than a decade. This suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time."
Their study has recently been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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