How Many Animals Die from Plastic Pollution?
By Suzanna Stapler
Imagine you’re walking along the nearest coast. You’re focused on the horizon as you step between shells and the occasional jellyfish. The waves’ endless rhythm settles your mind. You feel a warm breeze at your back and listen to excited dogs playing nearby.
Suddenly, you hear an unexpected crunch, and the moment breaks as your gaze jumps downward. An unwelcome object startles you—a crinkled plastic water bottle, cap missing. Shaking your head, you frown and stoop to pick it up…but you hesitate, wondering whether it will do any good. There’s sure to be more like close at hand.
The Reality of Today’s Plastic Pollution Crisis
This situation sounds all too familiar to anyone who finds themselves on a modern coastline. In 2015, Science magazine published a study about plastic debris. It showed how a spectrum of all kinds of plastics enters the ocean at an alarming rate of over 8 million tons per year.
Non-biodegradable debris harms marine landscapes, human livelihoods, and the creatures who live there. Global plastic pollution affects 690+ marine species according to the Marine Pollution Bulletin. This includes fish, seabirds, cetaceans, turtles, and many more.
How does Plastic Pollution Enter Marine Landscapes?
Research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows only 14% of plastics get recycled. The rest ends up in a landfill, incinerated, or escaped beyond waste management as leakage. Plastic leakage can be ocean-based or land-based. But it’s hard to know exactly where the plastic originated or how to prevent it from entering the ocean.
Human negligence, unfortunately, led to where we are now—by 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
These appalling consequences and more led Ocean Blue Project to develop a full report on the impact of plastic on wildlife, which you can find here:how-many-animals-die-from-plastic-pollution-ocean-blue-report
Based on thorough academic research, the report provides critical definitions and statistics as well as recommendations for the future given these findings. Thanks to the collaboration of many dedicated contributors, a downloadable PDF offers accessible details and a clear picture of the grim reality forced by plastic pollution on marine ecosystems. We hope it proves a helpful guide as you continue your reading of this blog and your own research.
What Happens When Animals Encounter Plastic in Marine Landscapes?
Plastic pollution harms wildlife in the sea and along the shore in many ways. Scientific Reports showed that plastic ingestion quickly becomes disruptive and poisonous. Marine wildlife of all kinds experiences disrupted eating patterns as a result of eating plastic debris. They may also experience internal deterioration due to toxic chemical exposure. But it’s not only the internal impact that counts.
Entanglement from discarded fibers can suffocate anything unlucky enough to cross its path. Plastic and its associated greenhouse gasses cause warming temperatures across our One World Ocean. Such conditions harm reproduction and survival for species from squid to seals.
How Plastic Pollution Affects Specific Species
You already know that pollution creates problems for all kinds of living beings in marine environments. But how does plastic hurt entire categories of aquatic animals everywhere? Let’s look at facts from Ocean Blue Project’s report on Wildlife and Plastic Pollution.
First, it causes millions of seabird deaths every year. Second, discarded fishing gear has entangled and killed 300,000 cetaceans. Third, over half of fish stocks have ingested plastic as of 2018. Yet, these numbers are only the tip of a melting iceberg.
32% of seabirds (including albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters) have ingested plastic debris. Hard plastics, such as microplastics and pellets, are the biggest culprit. Soft plastics such as packaging, rubbers, and foam contribute to the problem as well. These materials block seabird intestinal tracts or can entangle them beyond escape.
Plus, the data behind these depressing findings leads us to another truth. A seabird is more likely to die from each plastic material ingested. This makes the removal of plastic debris from your local beach a top priority. It could mean the difference between life and death for your favorite seabirds!
Penguins + Eagles
Classic seabirds aren’t the only feathered friends to run a-fowl of plastic pollution. Penguins experience problems with both entanglement and ingestion of debris. But their struggles continue up the food chain as well…
Let’s say a predator, like an orca whale, hunts a penguin carrying plastic in its digestive system. Toxic materials will then pass to the predator, exploding the potential damage. Bald eagles also encounter the problem of pollution swimming up the food chain. Their diet of fish makes it easy to accumulate hazardous waste through eating dinner. Speaking of which…
Plastic in the Gill, Plastic in the Krill
Many studies measure how pollution and changing ocean temperatures affect fish. Rising threats to cetaceans draw focus to plastic’s influence on their existence, too. Other marine mammals also experience the unjust excess of waste in their ecosystems.
Of course, a single blog post can’t encapsulate the dangers faced by these animals. But, this infographic by Ocean Blue Project provides a helpful starting point. Do you see one of your favorite sea creatures included in this image?
Researchers have found traces of microplastics in hundreds of types of fish. From keystone species like bass to the common sardine, the results are never good. A recent report from WWF addressed how ocean plastic pollution impacts marine species.
Fish-ingested plastic produces physical changes, impairs movement, inhibits digestion, and causes death. But that’s not the only concern to address, according to a study from the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
Exposed to warmer water temperatures and BPA, fish struggle to grow at their typical rate. Unfortunately, our planet’s water temperatures are rising every year. And BPA is a common chemical found in plastic. Thanks to these factors, rampant plastic pollution now harms the basic functioning of many millions of fish.
They’ve earned the majestic title of World’s Largest Mammals. And yet, plastic pollution still presents a major problem to whales. Baleen and toothed varieties survive some level of waste in their digestive system. But the whale stomach acid cannot break down plastic materials. Over time, these materials deteriorate the stomach lining and produce deadly toxins. When this happens, whales may experience severe dehydration and even death.
Another hazard for whales waits within their favorite lunch: krill.
A 2021 study from Nature Communications analyzed the consumption of microplastics by zooplankton. Particles (as small as .1 micrometers) of plastic are replacing a diet of insects and bacteria. This reduces their processing of carbon and thus contributes to global oxygen loss. It also means that whales are eating more plastic than ever as it embeds their primary food source.
For this article’s final example, let’s talk about turtles. Seven types of sea turtles exist today—all categorized as endangered. These lovable reptiles have survived for 110 million years. But modern marine environments pose unfamiliar, severe conditions for most sea creatures. And sea turtles are no exception.
Nature Scientific Reports investigates how plastic debris influences sea turtles. Their findings demonstrated that every age and type of sea turtle experiences entanglement.
Encounters between turtles and large plastics (such as discarded fishing gear) span the globe. Such instances cause harm and may soon lead to death. In fact, one in five of these critically endangered groups risk death at the ingestion of a single piece of plastic. In addition to ingestion and entanglement, plastic pollution also impacts sea turtle reproduction.
According to Ocean Blue Project’s report, warming temperatures affect incubation periods for eggs. Greenhouse gases, increased by plastic production, raise ocean temperatures and subsequently influence hatchlings. Warmer temperatures produce more female eggs, leading to extreme population imbalances.
In one example from Current Biology, 99% of the largest sea turtle population in the world is now female. This skewed population trend doesn’t bode well for the future of sea turtles. And situations of this kind are only becoming more common.
Ultimately, plastic imposes dire consequences on just about every big, small, and shelled creature of the sea. The pollution produced, consumed, and discarded by humans seeps into every marine crevice possible. Our home planet loses more amazing aquatic creatures, habitats, and natural resources daily. Something has to change.
What Can We Do to Make a Change?
At Ocean Blue Project, we work every day to make waves in the right direction. We also seek to lead the next generation toward true stewardship of our marine environments and the creatures who call them home.
We fight for the rehabilitation and conservation of our One World Ocean, beaches, and rivers. With this in mind, one of our first goals is to remove 5 million pounds of plastic from the seas. Together, we can restore Earth’s precious aquatic ecosystems and forge a new path. It’s time to re-establish a healthy connection between humans and their environment.
Each of us can make an impact—starting where we are today
So, you’re here right now—you know the problem, the stakes, and the potential for a better way. It may feel like a gigantic task, and it is. But transformation begins when we each decide to find a way to help—using what we have, where we are.
Start with your friends and family, or the people you see around your neighborhood every day. Maybe your coworkers or classmates would be interested, too. Once you’ve identified your network, you can ask yourself: “What am I passionate about changing? What makes me inspired, frustrated, and determined to protect?”
Three Ideas to Get Started
Your mission could look like picking up 3 pieces of litter every time you’re outside for a walk. Remember, removing even three pieces of debris could help an animal you care about! If you like working with others, you could join a local cleanup event with Ocean Blue Project and meet friends working towards the same goals. Or, if you’re looking to help marine ecosystems from home, write to your state representatives. Tell them what you’ve learned about the impact of plastic pollution and why it matters to you as a citizen.
There is no single solution to the plastic pollution crisis. But we can join forces as a community to protect wildlife and the future of aquatic habitats. From the individual to the systemic levels, we can fight to make a positive impact together. So what are you waiting for? There’s no better moment to begin. Have a group that would like to help Ocean Blue Project cleanup?