We toss 5 trillion pieces of plastic trash into the world’s oceans each year, and not all of it is recycled into fancy sneakers. Much of that floating carpet of junk ends up being eaten by marine life, and by 2050, almost 100% of all our sea birds will have plastic in their stomachs.
A new study uses documentation from as far back as 1962 to track the rising cases of plastic ingestion in seabirds. It uses this data to predict how the problem will look in the future.
According to the research, which models the diets of 186 species including seabirds, shore birds, and sea ducks, things look terrible, and they’re getting even worse. From 1952 to 2012, an average of 29% of individual birds had plastic in their guts. Today, that number is 90%. By 2050, the model predicts 99%. Imagine an environment so pervasively polluted that almost all animals are eating plastic.
This isn’t just a little plastic sitting in the belly, either. “Ingestion is known to have many effects, ranging from physical gut blockage to organ damage from leaching toxins,” says the report. That pollution travels up the food chain, too. Toxic chemicals have been found in “environmentally relevant concentrations in higher vertebrates.”
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, deals with ingestion of plastic, but sea life can also get entangled in the floating debris with equally disastrous effects. And plastic is particularly vicious as a pollutant because it hangs around for so long.
“The durability of plastic implies that it is retained for years to centuries, in some cases failing to degrade at all if it is not exposed to bacterial activity or UV radiation,” says the report. The numbers are all the more startling when you remember that plastic didn’t go into mass production until the 1950s, so this problem is–environmentally speaking–brand new. In fact, the authors speculate that “marine organisms may be a major sink reducing this increase.” That is, if seabirds and other creatures weren’t eating all the trash, the oceans would actually have way more plastic than it does.
If the situation seems desperate, that’s because it is. “[T]his threat is particularly pressing because half of all seabird species are in decline,” says the report.
Ocean cleanup plans can help–this giant ocean-going trash-collecting machine could manage to pick up 154 million pounds of junk over 10 years–but the obvious answer is to stop dumping plastic into the seas.