Plastic debris is wreaking havoc on wildlife. From getting stuck in nets to eating plastic that they think is food, creatures worldwide are dying from material we made.
On a boat off Costa Rica, a biologist uses pliers from a Swiss army knife to try to extract a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril. The turtle writhes in agony, bleeding profusely. For eight painful minutes the YouTube video ticks on; it has logged more than 20 million views, even though it’s so hard to watch. At the end the increasingly desperate biologists finally manage to dislodge a four-inch-long straw from the creature’s nose.
Raw scenes like this, which lay bare the toll of plastic on wildlife, have become familiar: The dead albatross, its stomach bursting with refuse. The turtle stuck in a six-pack ring, its shell warped from years of straining against the tough plastic. The seal snared in a discarded fishing net.
But most of the time, the harm is stealthier. Flesh-footed shearwaters, large, sooty brown seabirds that nest on islands off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, eat more plastic as a proportion of their body mass than any other marine animal, researchers say: In one large population, 90 percent of the fledglings had already ingested some. A plastic shard piercing an intestine can kill a bird quickly. But typically the consumption of plastic just leads to chronic, unrelenting hunger.
What makes plastic useful for people—its durability and light weight—increases the threat to animals. Plastic hangs around a long time, and a lot of it floats. “Single-use plastics are the worst. Period. Bar none,” Savoca says, referring to straws, water bottles, and plastic bags. Some 700 species of marine animals have been reported—so far—to have eaten or become entangled in plastic.
We don’t fully understand plastic’s long-term impact on wildlife (nor its impact on us). We haven’t been using the stuff for very long. The first documented cases of seabirds ingesting plastic were 74 Laysan albatross chicks found on a Pacific atoll in 1966, when plastic production was roughly a twentieth of what it is today. In hindsight, those birds seem like the proverbial canaries in a coal mine.