We as humans use quite a bit of plastic in our everyday lives, but are we truly aware of just how much plastic we use? Plastic bags, bottles, straws, and utensils are readily available, but how aware are we that our tech, personal care products, and clothing contain plastic too?
Sometimes we can recycle plastic, but in America, we actually toss out about 30 million tons of plastic annually.
Where does that plastic go when we toss it?
There’s a good chance it eventually reaches the ocean, swept up by fast-paced currents that move debris away from coastlines and across broad stretches of the planet. Out of sight, out of mind.
But here’s the thing – once plastic pollutes the ocean, it never goes away- at least, not in our lifetimes. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade quickly enough (although scientists are trying to change that). Instead, it piles up on distant coastlines, gathers into giant garbage patches in the ocean, or breaks down into tiny pieces.
When you consider that approximately eight million tons of plastic gets dumped into the ocean every year and five trillion pieces of plastic – weighing 250,000 tons – are afloat on the sea surface, our oceans choke from plastics. Even the Arctic Ocean, a place often considered pristine and untouched, is not immune to plastic pollution.
I didn’t think too deeply about plastic pollution until I studied seabirds in Alaska. Birds in general fascinate me, and, quite honestly, I wish I could fly and dive and spend my life at sea like the seabirds do.
The biggest reason I study seabirds, however, is that they can tell us a story of what is happening in the ocean, especially when it comes to pollution. Turns out seabirds now tell quite a complicated story about plastics in the ocean. Because they rely on the ocean for food, and there is so much plastic in the ocean, seabirds are at high risk of mistaking pieces of plastic for food, or eating other animals – even tiny plankton – that ate some plastic.
The seabirds that breed in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the ones that I study, help fill in some details of this story.
A little bit about the origins of this research. The study began in 2009 as an investigation to better understand seabird diets in the Bering Sea. We have collected many seabird specimens from many sites across the refuge. We examined the items inside of their stomachs, and sometimes found small pieces of… things that were clearly not food.
Plastic was not exactly on our radars when we began this research. Seabirds in the Bering Sea didn’t seem to feel plastic’s impacts like those from other parts of the world, which are literally starving to death from eating plastics.
But upon closer examination, it turned out that many of those things that were not food were small pieces of plastics, or microplastics.
Even seabirds living on islands at the end of the Aleutian Island chain, far from human populations, are impacted by human behavior. That blew my mind and made me rethink how I use plastic in my everyday life.
While microplastics might not be so large to cause starvation when ingested, they could potentially do some damage. That is because plastics are covered in chemicals when they are made, and they act like sponges in the ocean, soaking up all the harmful chemicals in the water directly around them. So even if a seabird eventually poops out some mistakenly ingested plastics, those plastics could do their damage by transferring harmful chemicals into seabirds’ tissues.
And we have found just that in many of the birds we have examined. In fact, we have analyzed muscle tissue from 129 birds and have been able to detect chemicals in 109 of them.
More specifically, the chemicals we look at are called phthalates, which are bad news because their chemical structures are very similar to hormones, which are those naturally occurring chemical signals our bodies make. When chemicals that look like hormones get inside our bodies, they can really disrupt its functioning.
What does that mean for seabirds in the Bering Sea?
Well, that story is still being told, but one of the morals so far is that plastic pollution is a global issue, touching the lives of many living things, including the seabirds in the Bering Sea. Perhaps this is our opportunity to become part of the story by reducing the amount of plastic we use and recycling as much as we can, so less plastic has the potential to pollute the ocean.
We can act to help the seabirds and protect the plant.
Veronica Padula is currently working on her collaborative PhD in Fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and the University of Alaska Anchorage. While she will always be a Jersey girl at heart, she has spent the last decade exploring as many of the beautiful corners of Alaska as possible, but still has so much left to see. In addition to her love of seabirds, Veronica is also very interested in science education and communication, making it more accessible to as many people as possible through sharing her love and passion for seabirds, the ocean, and environmental stewarship. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – she loves hearing from people about other awesome science happenings, so hit her up!