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Marine birds most threatened by plastic balloons

The terrible impact on wildlife of the plastic in our oceans has been highlighted many times recently. It’s hard to forget those disturbing images of birds with stomachs full of plastic which they have accidentally eaten. All plastic waste is potentially dangerous, but it has recently been revealed that balloons cause the most damage.

The dangers of soft plastics

Soft plastics account for just 5 per cent of the plastics consumed by seabirds but a new study has shown that this material is responsible for 40 per cent of plastic related deaths. Led by PhD Student Lauren Roman, researchers at the University of Tasmania in Australia found that harder plastic passes through avian guts more easily. It is soft plastic which is more likely to cause blockages. As many as one in five birds which eat a balloon will die.

New research into the causes of avian deaths

The research group looked at the various material which was causing avian deaths. The leading cause of death was found to be blockages of the intestinal tract. Balloons or fragments of balloons were the most dangerous items for birds. The study involved looking at the cause of death for 1733 seabirds and 51 different species.

Even a single piece of plastic could prove fatal to a bird. 100 per cent of birds consuming 93 pieces or more will die.

"As similar research into plastic ingestion by sea turtles has found, it appears that while hard plastic fragments may pass quickly through the gut, soft plastics are more likely to become compacted and cause fatal obstructions," Ms Roman said.

Mistaken for squid

Balloons are particularly hazardous for the birds because the pieces are easily mistaken for squid. If we are to save marine birds from dying as a result of plastic ingestion, it is vital to reduce the enormous volume of debris in the oceans. There is estimated to be an incredible 250,000 tonnes of marine debris floating in the world’s oceans right now. The amount of plastic in the oceans is expected to triple in just ten years, according to a report issued by the UK government in March 2018.

The current situation is disturbing but things are about the get much worse unless we do something immediately.

Seabirds in decline

More than a quarter of all seabird populations are experiencing serious population declines. This situation is largely due to plastic waste. A study led by Dr Chris Wilcox from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has estimated that up to 99 per cent of seabirds around the world will be eating plastic by the middle of this century.

The more plastic that birds consume, the more likely they are to die. The recent studies confirm how serious the problem is and that balloons are the most hazardous material of all. Not only does soft plastic cause blockages, it can also leach harmful chemicals into the birds’ bodies. Those chemicals are then transferred to the eggs that the birds lay.

It’s time to take action against plastic waste and we could all make a difference by not buying balloons.


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