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Most seabirds are filled with plastic waste
14 years ago
ALMOST every seabird in the world has waste plastic inside it. The stomachs of fulmars in the North Sea, storm petrels in the Antarctic and albatrosses in Hawaii have all been found to contain plastic discarded by consumers or industry. Some of the birds have eaten hundreds of plastic fragments and many have died as a result. “It’s a disgrace for humankind that we have so much unnecessary rubbish,” says Dr Jan van Franeker, a Dutch marine biologist. “We should respect other forms of life on this planet, not offload our problems onto them.” Franeker is a world expert on plastic waste at sea who has been leading a “Save the North Sea” research project funded by European governments for the past two years. Last week, at the Alterra laboratory on the Dutch island of Texel, he revealed his results exclusively to the Sunday Herald. The scale and extent of the plastic pollution he has uncovered is staggering. Nineteen out of every 20 dead fulmars analysed by his team from around the North Sea had plastic in them. Each bird had swallowed an average of 44 pieces, weighing a total of 0.33 grams. One fulmar found in Belgium had ingested 1603 pieces, while another from Denmark had 20.6 grams of plastic in its stomach – equivalent to two kilograms in a human-sized stomach. Franeker said toxic additives in the plastic can poison the birds while sharp fragments can damage or puncture their stomachs. Birds with stomachs full of plastic also ate less and grew weak. Fulmars were chosen for investigation because they are a good “indicator species” for illustrating the damage that plastic litter is doing to all marine life, he said. “If you look long enough, you can find it in almost any seabird worldwide.” Franeker’s team collected 560 dead fulmars from the shores of eight countries around the North Sea between 2002 and 2004, plus 38 from the Faroes for comparison. Fulmars are members of the petrel family of seabirds and are common throughout the North Sea. They feed at sea, eating fish, squid, plankton and carrion from near the surface. But at the same time they seem to ingest any waste, like plastic, which is floating around, causing them to be dubbed “flying dustbins”. The worst-polluted fulmars were found in the southeast of the North Sea along the shores of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The number and weight of ingested plastic scraps were twice those in fulmars from Orkney and Shetland. But Franeker pointed out that the high levels of contamination in every region of the North Sea are far in excess of environmental safety limits being proposed by European governments. And the amounts of plastic in fulmars from Scotland were more than twice as high as levels in fulmars from the Faroes. He believes the main source of plastic in the sea is waste illegally jettisoned by ships, fishing boats and marine installations. Fulmars near busy shipping lanes, like the Pentland Firth south of Orkney, have higher concentrations of plastic in their stomachs than fulmars from quieter areas like Shetland. But Franeker stressed that it is not just boats that are to blame. Some of the waste is dumped into rivers and washed out to sea, and some, like plastic bags and balloons, is blown off the land. “We regularly find pieces of balloons in birds,” he said. “Although letting off lots of balloons at a party can bring joy, there is a risk that it will kill wildlife.” He added: “Litter is an environmental issue which is absolutely an issue of personal behaviour. If we don’t have the discipline as a human race to solve this problem, how are we going to solve more complicated problems?” One of Franeker’s partner organisations in the European Union’s Save The North Sea project is the anti-litter group, Keep Scotland Beautiful. “We are horrified by the results of the latest European marine litter research,” said the organisation’s national director, John Summer. “That 95% of fulmars in the North Sea area have plastic in their stomachs is shocking enough, but when you think that this is just an indicator species, which feeds solely at sea, and scale the problem up you start to realise how many, and to what extent, other marine mammals and birds are affected. “More needs to be done to tackle marine litter sources round the coast of Scotland – and we can only urge people to have some pride, and think before leaving litter at the beach, throwing unwanted items overboard or discharging waste illegally.” Franeker also found evidence that North Sea fulmars are feeding plastic waste to their chicks in regurgitated food. After breeding, adult birds recorded lower levels of plastic in their stomach than chicks. In another study in the Antarctic, he found plastic fragments in the stomachs of eight out of every 10 chicks born to small seabirds called Wilson’s storm petrels. An analysis of Laysan albatross chicks that had died in their nests in Hawaii uncovered a wide range of ingested plastic debris, including a cigarette lighter, a toothbrush, a tampon applicator, a toy robot, a golf ball, and lids from a car battery and shampoo bottle. The plastics industry responded to Franeker’s study by criticising the shipping industry. “The UK plastics industry does not condone marine pollution,” said the British Plastics Federation’s senior executive, Matt Clements. “Fundamentally, the issue calls for better and more responsible waste management practices for all materials on the part of the shipping industry.” Environmentalists, however, highlighted the need to reduce our dependence on plastics. “The terrible toll being inflicted on our wildlife through entanglement or ingestion of plastic waste calls for a drastic yet simple response,” said Dr Dan Barlow, head of research at Friends of the Earth Scotland. “The introduction of a plastic bag levy in Scotland would slash plastic use as people either reuse bags or switch to re-useable cloth bags. In turn, less plastic waste wil
14 years ago
Edinburgh Liberal Democrat MSP, Mike Pringle, is proposing a new law in Scotland to tax plastic bags. Two major retail chains, B&Q and Ikea, have backed the idea by introducing charges for plastic bags instead of giving them away. Friends of the Earth, however, attacked other retailers for being “wedded to the misplaced belief that such a charge would be catastrophic for business”. Barlow said: “Unless they change their position, our marine wildlife will continue to be turned into living dustbins.” Most seabirds are filled with plastic waste Shocking study supports demands for charges on disposable carrier bags From Rob Edwards in Texel, The Netherlands
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