The harmful effects of plastic pollution on animals | Earth.Org – Past | Present

In just over 70 years, our dependence on the efficient and inexpensive material of plastic has skyrocketed to unsustainable levels. Yet while global production and consumption of this material continues to soar, we are not disposing and recycling plastics at the same rate. Global plastic pollution has increased from two million tons in 1950 to 348 million tons in 2017, and is expected to double by 2040. What’s left is incredibly harmful to all wildlife and humans. Here’s how plastic pollution affects animals.

Impact of plastic pollution on marine animals

Around 11 million tonnes of plastic waste from land ends up in the ocean each year, but this staggering statistic is currently expected to tripled in less than 20 years. Plastic pollution is creating harmful problems for wildlife in the ocean, among the more than 800 marine and coastal species affected by entanglement and other hazards to thousands more who accidentally ingest plastic, mistaking it for food. In fact, one study found that 1,557 species worldwide, including many endangered species, have ingested plastic. In 2019, a turtle hatchling, no bigger than the palm of a hand, was found dead with 104 pieces of plastic in his stomach.

Ingestion of plastic can block digestive tracts or punctured internal organs in wildlife. It can also choke and starve animals thinking they are full after eating plastic. In some cases, the consumption of plastic can lead to the reduction of stomach storage volume, which makes it all the more difficult for animals to feed.




Plastic debris does not decompose but breaks down into tiny plastic particles less than five millimeters long called microplastic. Given its miniature size, microplastics can therefore pass through the digestive system of animals and be expelled without consequence. Still scientists found plastic fragments in hundreds of species, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species.

Until now, a number of trials confirmed that the presence of microplastics could cause liver and cell damage as well as disruption of reproductive systems. For some species, like oysters, this could mean they could produce fewer eggs, threatening population growth. New research also shows that fish larvae eat nanofibers literally a few days after hatching.

According to the United Nations, more than 51 trillion microplastic particles have already littered the world’s seas, and it’s predicted that 99% of marine species will consume microplastic by 2050 if nothing is done to slow down plastic pollution.

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Impact of plastic pollution on land animals

Just as with marine wildlife, plastic pollution and discarded trash can cause intestinal blockages and damage when land animals ingest them, and fatal in many cases. Many reported cases of land mammals, including elephants, hyenas, zebras, tigers, camels and cattle, have accidentally consumed plastic waste, leading to a number of unnecessary deaths.

For example in January 2018, a 20 year old wild elephant in Periyar, India perished due to ingesting plastic from the litter thrown away by the tens of millions of Sabarimala pilgrims who pass through the heavily wooded forest to reach the shrine each winter. It was later revealed that significant amounts of plastic had blocked the elephant’s intestines, causing internal bleeding and organ failure.

Wild animals can easily become trapped and entangled in plastics, preventing them from being mobile to hunt for food or becoming more vulnerable to nearby prey. If they accidentally get their heads stuck in plastic food containers, the animals will suffer from overheating, suffocation, dehydration, starvation and possibly death.

Plastic can also seriously injure an animal, sometimes even leading to the loss of limbs. According to Humane Society of the United States. For birds, plastics hinder their ability to fly and hunt.

Microplastics are also a major concern for terrestrial animals. Microplastics seep into nearby soil and water sources from plastic waste in landfills and other environments. In a study 2020, which is the first of its kind to explore how the presence of microplastics can affect soil fauna, found that terrestrial microplastic pollution has led to the decline of species that live below the surface, such as mites, larvae and other creatures. lowercase. The decline of these species leads to less fertile soils and lands. Additionally, chlorinated plastic – such as plastic food packaging, plastic tubing, and medical devices and products – can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soilseeping into groundwater on which many species depend.

The food that we grow and that wildlife consumes is therefore susceptible to contamination with microplastics. According to green peacefruits like apples and pears average 195,500 and 189,500 particles per gram, respectively, while vegetables like broccoli and carrots average more than 100,000 plastic fragments per gram.

Impact of plastic pollution on humans

Finished three billion people around the world rely on fish as their main source of protein. Since most species of fish ingest microplastics during their lifetime, plastic particles can easily pass through the food web and eventually end up in the human digestive system when we consume seafood. But these plastic particles Harmful and toxic substances do not stay there, and studies have shown that they can in fact travel throughout the human body.

A study found the presence of microplastics in the human placenta, taking with them substances that can disrupt the normal functioning of hormones and have long-term effects on human health such as oxidative stress as well as chronic DNA damage and inflammation. In March 2022, the microplastic was detected in human blood for the first time, and weeks later, found in human lungs as well.

Although it is still early to tell the impacts of microplastic on human health, scientists have expressed concern that it can move through the body and lodge in delicate organs such as the brain, causing major damage.

What can we do?

The plastic that humans dump into the sea will eventually come back in one form or another. To tackle our ongoing plastic epidemic, a good first step is to ban the production and consumption of single-use plastics. From 2021, 77 countries around the world have adopted some sort of full or partial ban on plastic bags, according to the UN.

At the same time, the world needs to invest in and install greater recycling infrastructure, as well as adopt economic incentives such as a deposit refund system (DRS). In Germany, the introduction of a DRS has led to a staggering 98.4% return rate of plastics, effectively reducing the risk of plastic leaching into the environment.

On an individual level, simple lifestyle changes can make a difference, from reusable bottles to eliminating clothing containing acrylic, nylon, spandex and polyester – the microplastics in them come off during washes and are released into the open air.

Global biodiversity is already significantly threatened by habitat loss – due to land clearing for agriculture and other industrial purposes – and climate change. We don’t need to add another threat and pressure to already vulnerable species around the world.

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Image selected by: Tilaxan Thharmapalan

Bryce K. Locke