In January, 13 sperm whales washed up dead on the German coast. Last week the necropsy results were released, and the whales’ stomachs were found full of plastic junk.
The whales beached in shallow water on the coast of the region of Schleswig-Holstein. The cause of death was acute heart circulatory failure—on dry land the bodies of the huge 12 to 18 ton animals collapsed under their own weight, squeezing blood vessels closed, and crushing organs together.
Four of the dead whales’ stomachs contained significant amounts of plastic waste, and not just small pieces of debris, either. The Germans found a 43-foot shrimp-fishing net, a two-foot plastic car engine cover, and the sharp-edged remains of a plastic bucket.
“These findings show us the impact of our plastic society,” says the report. “Animals unintentionally take plastic and other plastic waste, suffer, in the worst case, some with full stomachs starve.”
When whales eat plastic, the results are striking because they pieces are huge, and show just how much junk is in our oceans. But every animal that lives on, in or near the sea can suffer. For instance, by charting the rise of plastic ingestion in seabirds since the 1960s, researchers predict that 100% of seabirds will have plastic in their stomachs by 2050. The number is already at 90%.
The world’s oceans already contain more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic, and we don’t notice it because so few of us live there. And the amount of trash rises every year (the 5 trillion figure is from 2014). The German sperm whales may not have starved to death because their stomachs were filled with plastic trash, but it won’t be long before that happens, and right now there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop it.