Plastic Will Be Inside Nearly Every Seabird on Earth by 2050

​Oceans are the world's forgotten landfill, and seabirds are turning into flying garbage cans.

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Aug 31 2015, 7:00pm

Image: Chris Jordan/US FWS

Oceans are the world's forgotten landfill, and seabirds are turning into flying garbage cans.

By 2050, 99 percent of all seabird species will be contaminated by the plastic waste flooding our oceans. If a new estimate proves correct, in 35 years time you'll be able to find plastic inside the stomachs of as many as 95 percent of the individual, living seabirds on Earth.

Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an Australian and British trio detail their assessment of the past 40 years of plastic pollution research, which they used to model how the exponential growth of plastic production will lead to toxic trash tickling the innards of all the seagulls and pelicans you happen to see.

CSIRO scientist Britta Denise Hardesty with plastic dissected from a dead flesh-footed shearwater, which amounted to 8 percent of the bird's body weight. Image: Britta Denise Hardesty

Calling the growth exponential isn't hyperbole, either: "Global plastic production is increasing exponentially, with a current doubling time of 11 years," the authors write, "thus, between 2015 and 2026, we will make as much plastic as has been made since production began."

An inordinate amount of that plastic trash finds its way into the oceans, where it floats around on global currents until it's broken down by UV rays or bacteria into ever-smaller bits that are worming their way all over marine food chains. Take a look at albatrosses whose stomachs are so full of plastic bits that they starve to death, then think about the microscopic bits of plastic that are leaking highly-concentrated pollutants into your local cormorant's gut.

"One clear implication of our research is that seabird ingestion rates scale with plastic exposure," the study's authors note. "Thus, as more plastic is introduced into the ocean, we can expect ingestion rates to increase proportionately."

And the birds in this PNAS study are just one example of how ocean garbage has penetrated every far-flung locale you can think of. A 2012 United Nations report found marine debris, which includes trash and plastic that wildlife either eats or gets tangled in, affected 663 marine species, from turtles to dolphins, a figure that had grown 40 percent over a similar report in 1997.

If you combine per-unit-area density of marine debris...

with the per-unit-area density of seabird species...

You get a map of density of seabird species already found to be impacted.

That plastic pollution is expected to affect a global group of wildlife—even in regions thought to be relatively clean, such as the Arctic—is eye-opening in its own right. But it gets even more concerned when you consider the massive decline of seabird populations over the last half century or so. Whether it's plastic that gets stuck in young birds' stomachs, taking up space that should be filled with food and stunting their growth, or toxins that leech from plastic pellets, the growing plastic problem further slims hopes for a recovery.

It seems like an obvious conclusion: If you put more plastic into the oceans, more of it will end up inside wildlife. But that simplicity is precisely what makes it profound. We're making more plastics than ever, and until we radically change how we throw it away, it's going to continue to ooze its way into anything that lives off Earth's oceans—including ourselves.