January 15, 2020
A Tangled Knot
Plastics are Filling Oceans and Choking Wildlife
By Todd McLeish
Almost every day, Geoff Dennis walks the beaches of Little Compton with his dog Koda and picks up the trash he sees along the way. Most of it he discards in a proper trash receptacle, but some of the plastic he finds – bottles, balloons and straws, for instance – is saved and recorded with a photograph at the end of the year to document its annual accumulation.
In the summer of 2018 alone, he picked up 2,946 plastic bottles, 129 cigarette lighters, and 529 straws on just one beach. And that’s just the trash he counted and photographed. He picked up many many more plastic cups and plates, Styrofoam take-out containers, plastic bags, and an untold number of other plastic items. One day last May he collected 282 balloons on the beaches he frequents, and two weeks later he picked up another 89. This year he noted the growing number of plastic pods from Keurig coffee makers, and blue rubber gloves are on the rise as well – 70 one day in September and 30 more three weeks later.
“They’re small, as some people say in defending the use of plastic straws, but still part of the plastic problem,” said Dennis. “Smalls add up.”
He estimates that about half of what he picks up is generated by local beachgoers and the other half from people and industries many miles away, since it shows evidence of having drifted on ocean currents for some time.
The growing problem of plastics pollution is due in part to our throw-away society and because plastic degrades very slowly in the environment. It persists for hundreds of years, at least. And unless we change our consumer behaviors and the plastics and packaging industries reform themselves, the problem won’t go away anytime soon. The recycling rate of plastics is floundering at dreadfully low levels while plastics production is expected to increase by about 40 percent by 2025.
An Osprey nest photographed in Rhode Island contained a mylar balloon.
“Plastic pollution has been an issue for Audubon for a long time, largely because of its impacts on wildlife,” said Meg Kerr, Audubon’s senior director for policy. “The global focus on plastics in the oceans and the attention it has received through social media has made it an issue of top concern to us. And in the context of climate change, plastics are made by fossil fuels, which we are trying to transition away from.
“Our throw-away society wasn’t created by accident,” she added. “It’s a very intentional industry push to create a throw-away world so the industry has a use for its products. They greenwash the ability to recycle and reuse, knowing full well that only a small portion actually gets recycled or reused.”
Jamie Rhodes agrees. A Providence-based attorney who has been working on plastics reduction initiatives around the country for the last decade, he said that consumer product manufacturers and those who use plastic for packaging and shipping have no incentive to reduce their use of plastics because it costs so little and its creation is subsidized by the oil industry.
The plastics industry emerged after World War II as the oil industry sought uses for the byproducts of the process of refining crude oil into gasoline and other fuels.
“They realized that the chemicals that came from the fossil fuel refinement process could be turned into plastics, which are among the most flexible chemical compounds out there,” Rhodes said. “The growth of plastics was a way for the fossil fuel industry to find value in what had been an industrial byproduct. They were drilling for oil, and plastics became a byproduct.
“Now we’re at the point where the tail is wagging the dog,” he continued. “Our use of oil for transportation and heating is declining, and a lot of the large fossil fuel companies have realized that the future of oil extraction is in plastics. There has been a significant shift in oil extraction efforts to cater to the needs of the plastics industry. We’re now seeing a growth in the construction of cracking plants in the U.S., which crack the chemical chain into component parts for specialized plastic resins.”
“Leg injuries in gulls and shorebirds are common due to entanglement...it causes them to have a hard time foraging, and they often lose their leg because of it.”
- Audubon Board member and URI Professor Peter Paton
The results of all of that plastic production can be seen everywhere you look.
Approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, and only about 9 percent has been recycled. Drink companies alone use about 500 billion single-use plastic bottles each year. Much of it finds its way into the oceans and across the landscape where it affects wildlife of every sort.
According to a 2016 report by the United Nations, more than 800 species have been harmed by marine debris, mostly through ingesting or becoming entangled in plastics, which causes suffocation, starvation and drowning. As many as 40 percent of cetaceans and 44 percent of seabird species have been documented to have ingested marine debris.
Because plastic floats, small pieces are often accidentally consumed by seabirds, which may be the most likely wildlife to be harmed by plastic. University of Rhode Island Professor Peter Paton said the “classic example” is the Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses on Midway Island in the Pacific, which soar for thousands of miles around the ocean in search of food and often bring pieces of plastic back to their nests to feed their chicks, sometimes pieces as large as toothbrushes.
“If you go to Midway, you see dead chicks everywhere with their crops and gizzards completely full of plastic,” said Paton, a member of the Audubon board of directors.
Closer to home, an ongoing study of chemical contaminants in the tissues of great shearwaters off the New England coast by a URI doctoral student turned into a study of plastics after she found plastic inside every one of the 350 dead birds on which she conducted a necropsy (an animal autopsy).
“It’s been quite jarring,” said Anna Robuck, who examined birds that were found dead between 2007 and 2019. “There hasn’t been a bird I’ve cut open that hasn’t had plastic in it. I’ve analyzed about 400 pieces of the plastics I found in the birds, and most are recyclable polyethylene.”
Among the plastics Robuck has found in Great Shearwaters are fragments of bottle caps, food wrappers and tangled up balls of microfibers. Most are smaller than 5 millimeters in size, which are considered microplastics, though many are considerably larger, large enough to pose a choking hazard. Some birds were found to have more than 100 pieces of plastic in their bodies, but they averaged 7 to 10.
“Great Shearwaters are opportunistic foragers at the water’s surface, which means they’re probably ingesting the plastic directly,” she explained. “Most pieces are large enough that their prey – primarily small fish called sand lance – didn’t consume it first.”
While it is uncertain if the ingestion of plastic was the primary cause of death of the birds, it is likely to have been a contributing factor. And because chemical contaminants easily adhere to plastics, the plastics may also serve to deliver toxic chemicals to the birds and other animals that ingest them.
Not all plastics are equally hazardous when consumed by wildlife, however. Balloons are especially deadly.
A study published last summer by researchers in Australia found that balloons are more likely to kill seabirds than any other kind of plastic debris. In an evaluation of 1,733 dead seabirds, the researchers noted that 32 percent had ingested plastic debris. And while soft plastics like balloons accounted for only 5 percent of the items ingested, they were responsible for 42 percent of the seabird deaths. In addition, although just 2 percent of all ingested plastic were pieces of balloons, the birds that ingested balloon pieces were 32 times more likely to die than if the bird had ingested a hard plastic. According to the research team, balloons are especially lethal because they are easily swallowed and can squeeze into a bird’s stomach cavity, where they reduce the space available for food.
But pelagic seabirds aren’t the only birds negatively affected by plastic pollution.
Paton said that gulls often include a wide variety of plastic debris in the construction of their nests, some of which pose an entanglement threat to the birds and their chicks.
“Leg injuries in gulls and shorebirds are common due to entanglements,” he said. “One of the first piping plovers I caught for my research had fishing line entangled around one foot and the leg was swollen. It causes them to have a hard time foraging, and they often lose their leg because of it.”
It’s not just coastal birds that are at risk, however. Paton received a call in September about a Great Blue Heron in Burrillville whose neck and wing were entangled in plastic debris, making the bird unable to fly.
A Blue Heron rests on the shore of Moshassuck River surrounded by plastic waste. Image by Peter Green.
Examples abound of marine mammals and sea turtles being similarly affected by plastic pollution in the marine environment. A Cuvier’s beaked whale died on the coast of the Philippines last spring with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. A month later, a pregnant sperm whale in the Mediterranean Sea was found dead after having swallowed 55 pounds of plastic. Then there’s the harp seal found dead in Scotland with plastic wrappers in its intestines and the viral photo of the sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril.
“When baleen whales feed, they aren’t selectively nibbling on their very tiny prey. They swim across the water with their mouths open, and they take in a lot of water and whatever else happens to be in the water,” said Janelle Shuh, the stranding coordinator at Mystic Aquarium. “When they filter the water out with their baleen, any plastics in the water get stuck inside their mouths.”
Shuh calls ocean plastics a significant problem for all species living in the ocean environment, and it’s a problem she sees regularly in the animals she rescues from beaches throughout the region. She regularly responds to calls about seals entangled in monofilament fishing line and other plastic debris, which often causes wounds and infections. She once conducted a necropsy on a dead harp seal and found several plastic bags in its stomach.
“I’ve also done plenty of sea turtle necropsies where we’ve seen plastics in their stomach and esophagus,” she said. “Leatherback turtles eat jellyfish, and a floating plastic bag can have the appearance of a jellyfish and they’ll eat it assuming it’s prey. Loggerheads also tend to have had plastics in their system. They munch on crabs on the sea bottom, and if there’s a plastic bottle cap down there, they might accidentally ingest it along with the crab.”
While it’s often difficult to determine whether the plastic items were the primary cause of death of the animals, Shuh believes the plastic is usually a contributing factor.
“Our narrative needs to shift,” she concluded. “I grew up in the 70s with the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ But we’ve only really focused on recycling, and that’s becoming more challenging. We need to shift our mindset to ‘reduce and reuse’ so the materials aren’t getting into the environment in the first place. That’s the direction we need to go in now.”
The Statistics Stack Up: Facts about Ocean Plastics
The International Coastal Cleanup, managed by The Ocean Conservancy and coordinated in Rhode Island for many years by Audubon’s former senior director of policy Eugenia Marks, is the world’s largest volunteer effort on behalf of the ocean. Among the findings from the 2019 international report and from Rhode Island’s 2018 report:
All of the 10 most common items collected from beaches around the world were plastics, including cigarette butts*, food wrappers, straws, beverage bottles, bags, bottle caps and utensils.
More than 97 million pieces of trash were collected, totaling 23 million pounds of litter.
80,000 pounds of trash was collected by scuba divers searching 444 miles of underwater habitat.
In Rhode Island, nearly 2,300 volunteers collected 13,000 pounds of trash during 98 beach cleanup events in 2018.
The most abundant item collected on Rhode Island beaches was cigarette butts – 36,147 butts representing 23 percent of the total quantity of trash.
Twenty-eight percent of the trash on Rhode Island beaches – a total of 43,281 pieces – was considered tiny trash, less than 2.5 millimeters in size.
Two percent of the Rhode Island trash was related to fishing, including fishing line, lures, nets, traps and buoys.
*Cigarette butts are composed of thousands of cellulose acetate fibers, a microplastic that take years to disappear from the environment.
Todd McLeish is a life-long birder, freelance science writer and author of several books about wildlife, including “Return of the Sea Otter.”