Why is Plastic Harmful to Beach and Ocean Wildlife?

Purple and yellow fish swimming in a reef

An article published by National Geographic reported that in 2015 the planet collectively produced 448 million tonnes of plastic. It is an incomprehensible increase from the quantity of plastic that was previously manufactured almost 70 years ago, when an estimated 2.3 million tonnes of plastic was documented.

Sadly, the situation doesn't look set to improve as, by 2050, the production of plastic is predicted to increase by double. If you are familiar with the dangers of plastic on the environment, you will feel shocked at this calculation.

Plastic has a detrimental impact on the planet, not only on land but also in the oceans. In this blog, we explore exactly how plastic poses a threat to marine and beach wildlife and why we should aim to reduce our use, especially, of single-use plastic.

A clean looking coastline

An Introduction to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”

Unfortunately, there is nothing "great" about this part of the ocean. Plastic is polluting our oceans across the planet, and this is the worst-hit area.

Our beautiful planet is home to five major ocean gyres. One of these, the North Pacific Gyre in the Pacific Ocean, is the unfortunate location of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch".

The "plastic island", which is six metres in depth, is predicted to be the size of Texas. Around 3.5 million tonnes of trash is thought to have accumulated here.

Many of this rubbish has a tragic effect on marine wildlife and includes items such as nets, lines, cans, balloons, toothbrushes, plastic bags and bottles.

A landfill full of plastic

Why Does Plastic Go Into the Ocean?

You may be wondering; how does plastic make it into the ocean? Surely leaving the occasional piece of rubbish at the beach can’t cause such a significant effect on our world’s oceans and contribute to such severe problems like the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”?

In fact, you may be taken aback to find out that even throwing your rubbish to landfill can cause the planet’s seas to become polluted.

The WWF has declared that humans are, obviously, to blame. Both littering and rubbish taken to landfill can quite easily find its way to the sea. Much waste in transit often blows away into running rivers and streams and eventually finds its way to the ocean.

Small plastic objects which escape down sinks and toilets are also to blame. This could be anything from microbeads, cotton buds, sanitary products and wet wipes.

These small bits of plastic will enter the seas and eventually come back to us in the food chain when consumed by fish.

How Does Plastic Affect Sealife?

One of the main threats from plastic to marine wildlife is its consumption as well as entrapment.

With around 18 billion pounds of plastic entering the sea each year, it is a real and all too common danger to ocean animals.

However, experts are anxious as the true extent of plastic is not yet known. The ocean is, dare we point out the obvious, an incredibly expansive place inhabiting over 70% of the world’s surface. Therefore, it is hard to really know how much of our wildlife is being affected by so much plastic intruding the environment.

Which Animals Are Affected By Plastic Pollution?

From what we do know, it is believed that roughly 700 species of sea animals are affected by plastic. It means that this wildlife is either being trapped by or have consumed plastic.

The list is endless. You may have witnessed on the news animals such as turtles having plastic straws stuck up their noses and whales dying with tonnes of plastic filling their stomach. These are just a tiny fraction of animals that can be affected.

Marine animals who don’t live under the sea are also affected. For example, birds such as flesh-footed shearwaters, found in New Zealand and Australia, are reported to have eaten ‘more plastic as a proportion of their body mass’. This statistic is reported to be higher than any other marine animal.

Yellow jellyfish in the ocean

Why Do Animals Eat Plastic?

The exact reason why so many animals eat plastic is not entirely apparent for every species affected. However, there are some common themes which have been explained below.

Mistake It For Food

One of the main reasons that marine animals eat plastic is that they don't recognise it as plastic. In fact, in many cases, they think it is food. For example, turtles commonly assume plastic bags are jellyfish. No animal can consume a diet of plastic and remain healthy.

However, animals mistaking plastic for food is much more than just a visual trick. It is believed that when plastic is coated in algae, the smell makes some species of fish believe it is food.

Deficiency in Sea Wildlife

Not only is it physically dangerous but it also means that animals are not absorbing all the nutrients and energy they need to sustain a healthy life. The phrase 'empty calories' takes on a whole new meaning, and it can cause significant deficiencies.

A turtle in a reef

How Can We Help to Prevent Plastic Pollution?

There are many ways we can work collectively to reduce how much plastic we produce, purchase and throw away. Some of the essential recommendations include:

Recycle any rubbish you can and avoid throwing anything that will end up in landfill.
Don't use single-use plastics and invest in re-usable goods such as water bottles and fabric shopping bags.
Support any potential new laws or petitions which responsibly act to protect the environment from unnecessary plastic.

For further tips, take a look at our top habits for living more sustainably.

How do you try to decrease your use of single-use plastic? Why not share your tips with us on our social media channels; we would love to know!

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