How can reducing plastic waste help endangered species?

Friday 21st May is Endangered Species Day, encouraging us to learn about the creatures and plants that are under threat and to consider what actions we can take to protect them. There are 8 million species in the world and the UN believes that around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades. A number of these are sea dwelling and our plastic waste is believed to be one of the main factors in their demise.

From a very young age I was obsessed with animals. I wanted to be a vet. My first environmental stand was to become a vegetarian at age 10 (eventually encouraging my family to follow suit). So the emotive subject of endangered species is a huge motivation for me to make changes. 

It has been suggested by Encyclopaedia Brittanica that 99% of threatened species are at risk because of human behaviour. There are many activities that we humans are involved in which are causing declining numbers. 

  • The Plastic Pollution Coalition  argues that one of the main threats to nature is plastic pollution, which has increased tenfold since 1980.
  • According to a UN report 66% of the Earth’s marine environment has been adversely affected by human activity. 
  • And marine plastic pollution has affected at least 267 species, including 86% of sea turtles, 44% of seabirds, and 43% of marine mammals.

The plastic in our oceans gets there in different ways. Some is wind blown, perhaps from litter dropped on our streets or left at picnics or even from landfill sites. If it is blown into rivers it will eventually end up in the sea. Other plastics come through our drains from microplastics. A large amount of ocean plastic is discarded from sea vessels, either accidentally or deliberately.  A huge proportion of this is fishing gear.

There are two main risks to marine creatures from plastics; entanglement or ingestion. Entanglement happens when the animal gets larger pieces of plastic around parts of its body and is unable to free itself. You will have seen images of sea turtles with drink can holders caught on their heads or dolphins tangled in fishing gear. A study on sea turtles found that more than 1000 turtles are expected to die annually due to entanglement. But the scientists involved believe that figure is likely to be a huge underestimate as the survey happened on beaches only so did not record creatures in the water.

Ingestion happens when the animals eat plastic, either because they mistake plastic for food or swallow tiny pieces unknowingly. If plastic with sharp edges is swallowed this will obviously cause cuts and internal damage. If the animal’s stomach contains large amounts of plastic rubbish then there is less room for the real food and nutrients it needs to survive. This will eventually kill them. This is especially likely with the young who have small stomachs and immature systems. Scientists have on many occasions discovered plastic bags in whales and other marine mammals.  A survey of 50 beached seals, whales and dolphins in a 2018 study found that all had microplastics in their stomachs.

So, what can we do to make a difference? Most of us can’t do much about the fishing gear, or ghost gear as it is called, except to raise awareness of the issue. Although, some clever people like Kitty Kipper have made amazing artwork from  ghost nets. But the rest of us can definitely take some simple steps right now to reduce general plastic waste ending up in oceans. Here are a few suggestions

  • Avoid putting wipes down your toilet. Better still don’t use them.
  • Make sure any rubbish is safely stored and can’t get blown away
  • Replace single use plastic, e.g. metal water bottle, bamboo cutlery
  • Use non plastic containers 
  • Buy fruit and veg loose
  • Always carry a reusable shopping bag 

I am constantly amazed by the marvellous beauty and variety that nature provides and I want to be involved in protecting it. I’m sure, like me, you want to live on a healthy planet and for future generations to be able to do that too. That is why I urge you to keep going and reduce your plastic use wherever you can. I would love to hear any suggestions or tips you want to share.

[cover image by Ben J Hicks]

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