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Plastic Pollution Facts: How Plastic Waste is Killing Sea Life

Updated: Jan 5

Plastic pollution facts - plastic waste that ends up in the marine environment are generally categorised as either land- or ocean-based. Eighty percent of it enters our oceans from land sources. These eighty percent translate into 8 million metric tons of plastic waste that leaks into the oceans every year. That’s the equivalent of placing 1.5 garbage bags full of waste on every meter of coastline around the globe. Environmental scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

You might be wondering which countries pollute oceans with plastic the most? According to The World Economic Forum, available data show that Asia accounts for more than 80 percent of the total leakage of plastic into the marine environment with China and Indonesia being the worst plastic polluters.


As to Australia, the vast majority of plastic debris entering its waters are land-based and also generated locally. What’s more, plastic waste and other debris generated in Australia often travel to neighbouring marine regions and surrounding countries including New Zealand and Indonesia. While there is a lack of sufficient data on how badly Australian waters are polluted with plastic, plastic litter that chokes Australia’s coastlines indicates how bad the current situation actually is.


Plastic pollution has devastating impact on marine life - it is estimated that Nearly 700 marine species have encountered plastic debris from which 17 percent are listed on the IUCN Red List as near threatened or above. WWF reports that 100,000 of marine mammals are killed globally by eating or being entangled in plastic. This blog post is devoted to those that need to be urgently protected from plastic litter we are all responsible for.


Sea turtles


World’s oceans are a home for seven species of sea turtles, whose earliest ancestors appeared on Earth around 220 million years ago. Sea turtles were living a good life - until plastic made its way into the world in the 1950s. An international study led by the University of Queensland suggests that currently 52% of the world’s turtles have eaten plastic or other human rubbish. A large part of ingested plastic would be single-use plastic bags often mistaken by sea turtles for jellyfish. Ingested plastic bags and other plastic waste can kill turtles by blocking their gut or piercing the gut wall. Plastic trash was also shown to affect turtles’ reproductive system contributing to their population’s decrease.

The risk analysis showed that olive ridley turtles were at the highest risk, due to their feeding behaviour and distribution. The study also found that the east coast of Australia and North America, as well as Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and Hawaii were particularly dangerous for turtles.


Whales


In February 2018 a young sperm whale was washed ashore on the southeast coast of Spain. It was killed by plastic debris that blocked its stomach and intestines. During autopsy scientists found staggering 29 kg of plastic waste in the mammal’s stomach - mainly fish netting and garbage bags.


One year later in Philippines a young Cuvier’s beaked whale was found dead. The reason of the premature death was gastric shock after ingesting 40 kg of plastic bags. Sadly, such incidences are not exceptions - they happen all over the world on a regular basis.


Dolphins


Australian waters host 15 species of dolphins and all of them are protected. Some of the species are unique to Australia and vulnerable to extinction, such as Australian humpback dolphin or snubfin dolphin.

Plastic pollution is considered one of the biggest threats to dolphins population. Similarly to whales, corpses of dead dolphins killed by plastic waste are found throughout the world regularly. Last year in Florida a young dolphin had to be euthanised due to health complications after ingestion of few plastic bags and a balloon.


Sea lions and seals


An eight-year study in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia has detected 388 stellar sea lions either entangled in marine plastic debris or having ingested fishing gear made of plastic. About half of the animals had the debris wrapped around their neck, while the other half had swallowed plastic fishing gear.


Hawaiian monk seal is on the list of endangered species with its population expected to decline to fewer than 1,000 animals in the upcoming years.


Seabirds


Seabirds are also suffering from plastic pollution. Some die as a result of sharp plastics puncturing their internal organs, while others die due to starvation as they feel full from eating plastic, but receive no nutritional benefit. Some of the seabirds never make it to adulthood since they are fed with plastic by adult birds mistaken plastic for food which they bring to the nests. It is predicted that by 2050 up to 99% of seabirds will have eaten pieces of plastic.


Fish


Research team from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) found microplastics in Great Barrier Reef wild-caught fish. Guts of 19 juvenile coral trout, a commercially important reef fish revealed 115 items of plastic waste.


Another study found that a quarter of fish at markets in California had plastic in their guts, mostly in the form of micro plastic particles.

We hope these plastic pollution facts help highlight the urgency of ending the use of single-use plastics. Plastic waste is not only ingested by sea life but also by us, humans. Take action today to switch to green alternatives to single-use plastics. Here at TOMbag, we're devoted to replacing single-use garbage bags with our sustainable reusable garbage bag alternative and stopping new plastic waste entering our oceans.