A sea turtle with a straw in its nose. Whales washing ashore with stomachs filled with plastic bags. Birds feeding plastic pieces to their chicks. Wildlife all over the planet suffers at the hands of plastic pollution, whether they are terrestrial or marine. We tend to only consider marine species when looking at the plastic pollution problem, but it affects terrestrial species just as much. This past week we celebrated World Lion Day, World Elephant Day, and World Hirola Day. Each of these species has been affected by plastic pollution. Elephants in particular have suffered, as landfill waste has overflowed into their habitat, and many animals have suffered from consuming plastic waste.
Besides elephants, a huge range of wildlife are negatively affected by plastic pollution. Some of the most common are marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, and camels. It’s estimated that 54% of all marine mammals have been impacted by plastic pollution in some way, whether it’s ingestion or entanglement. ⅔ of all seabirds worldwide are negatively affected as well. All 7 species of sea turtles have problems with plastic, especially plastic bags which can mimic jellies in the marine environment. Jellies are a key food source for sea turtles, and therefore it’s estimated that over 50% of all sea turtles have ingested plastic debris at some point. Camels are also impacted mainly by plastic bag waste, and they account for half of the camel deaths on the Arabian Peninsula each year.
Plastic waste negatively impacts wildlife in a variety of ways. One of the main ones is due to the fact that animals consume and ingest plastic waste thinking it’s food. This can lead to a variety of problems. Animals cannot digest or pass plastic once it’s in their digestive system. Therefore, it clogs up their digestive tract, giving the feeling of being full (since there’s no room in their stomachs) but without any of the essential nutrients they need. They basically starve to death with a stomach full of plastic. Ingested plastic debris can also cause internal injury and tear the delicate soft tissues of the digestive tract. AND plastic debris tends to pick up chemical pollutants in the environment before they are ingested, which are then leached into the animal’s system as the body attempts to break it down. Entanglement is also a dangerous consequence of plastic pollution. Not only can it cause external injuries that can become infected, it can drown air-reliant marine life due to immobilization from entanglement. The same can be true for entanglement on land; animals can be rendered immobile, and can die of starvation or dehydration.
Plastic affects more than just humans. For hundreds of thousands of years after it is produced, it affects an enormous range of ecosystems and wildlife. From toxic chemical effects on microorganisms to entangling the internal digestive system of something as large as a sperm whale, plastic affects all walks of life. And it’s our job as humans to protect the other species that call our planet home. We created this plastic problem, and therefore it’s our job to solve it. Beach cleanups and pulling plastic waste from open water are great starts. But it’s time to plug the problem at the source. We need everyone working together to solve the plastic pollution problem. What can you do?