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Most Seabirds Have Eaten Plastic



Scientists at North Highland College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute have conducted research into plastic ingestion by North Atlantic seabirds. Their paper, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, reveals a disturbing picture.

Plastic Use and Production


Worldwide plastic production has increased 20-fold since 1964. Unfortunately, the properties which make plastic so useful are also the features which make it so hazardous to wildlife. Plastic is cheap, a fact which has fired the enormous growth in production. It is versatile and so has limitless applications and it is robust and so doesn’t break down.


Almost half of all the plastics produced are single use items which are thrown away. The plastic breaks up into smaller fragments rather than breaking down. The fragments remain in the environment and vary in size and density. They can be found throughout the water column, maximising the number of species which come into contact with them.

Plastic in the Oceans


It is estimated that eight million tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans every year. This kills and injures marine life, including birds. 80% of the plastic arrives in the oceans via rivers. The volume of plastic in the water has reached shocking levels and threatens to damage the ecosystem beyond repair.

The Research


The researchers collated data from all known studies which have reported the incidence of plastic ingestion and nest incorporation in seabirds around northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, Greenland, Svalbard, the Faroes and Iceland. The data revealed that the vast majority of seabirds in the north-east Atlantic are likely to have eaten plastic. 34 species have been investigated and 74 per cent of these have been found to have ingested plastic.

Plastic and Seabirds


Seabirds may ingest plastic, become entangled in it or place it in their nests. There are serious implications for reproduction and survival. The North Atlantic Ocean is home to many crucial breeding populations of seabirds. Concerted action is required to address the issue. The problem should be tackled at source, on land, if the volume of plastic in the ocean is to be reduced. The practices of both producers and users must be tackled.

The researchers have recommended a more coordinated and comprehensive approach to dealing with plastic pollution together with further research into how plastics affect the various species over time. Many species have yet to be investigated at all.

Sir David Attenborough and Greenpeace


Meanwhile, none other than Sir David Attenborough has reported seeing seabirds feeding scraps of plastic to their young. Sir David witnessed this troubling behaviour whilst filming a new documentary series. Greenpeace have also confirmed that it has evidence of gannets feeding plastic to their chicks off the coast of Scotland.

The organisation’s team found plastic bottles, bags and packaging in some of Britain’s most iconic seabird colonies when studying areas such as the Bass Rock, Isle of May and the Shiant Isles.

The latest evidence is a wake-up call for governments and corporations. Indeed, it is news which should inspire all of us to take action!

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