Birds are known for getting resourceful when it comes to building materials, but plastic? Observations of birds’ nests in the wild have shown not only that they’re adapting plastic as a nest-building material, but that they’re taking it to the next level and using it in signaling, messaging and courting, a stunning display of how ubiquitous plastic has become in the environment.
For birds, plastic has a dark side, too, as it’s also found tangling and fouling beaks, neck, and wings, while more than one necropsy has revealed plastic debris inside the crops and stomachs of birds.
Birds aren’t the only ones who are showing evidence of our new, increasingly plastic world. In Hawaii, a new type of rock known as plastiglomerate has been showing up on beaches. Its defining characteristic? The presence of plastic, along with more familiar materials like sand, lava, seashells, and corals. Researchers surmise that most plastiglomerate probably comes from plastic in beach fires, but it could also be the result of plastic pollution near lava fields or in other areas. The rock is evidence that plastic is here to stay in a major way, and will remain preserved as an integral part of our culture for millions of years.
You may have heard of the Pacific garbage patch — which has been slightly overhyped and simplified for dramatic purposes — but a lot of the world’s plastic debris is actually winding up in Arctic sea ice. That’s not such a great place for it just on principle, but it could have serious implications for the future, with ice melting and releasing its load of plastic and other hidden surprises into the ocean. If the ocean is suddenly flooded with plastic, the balance of the world’s ecosystems could change radically in response. One surprising source of all that plastic? Laundry lint. Another is microbeads, currently very popular in cosmetics.
Here’s a classic example of the complexities of plastic pollution: researchers are noticing that large numbers of bacteria are seizing upon plastic in the ocean as a breeding spot, including some bioluminescent species. These bacterial blooms are indicators of an unbalanced ecosystem, but more than that, they light up the night, attracting fish, who unwittingly eat the plastic, thinking it’s a tasty snack. Not enough is known about the effects of plastic on many fishes, but eating plastic could pose health hazards in the short and long term — such as death due to impaction, or infertility caused by additives.
Plastic is shaping the world around it, even as humans may think they have a handle on the global proliferation of plastics. In The Graduate, Will and Mr. McGuire have an infamous conversation about plastics. Mr. McGuire says: “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” We’re not so sure about the great future part, but it’s definitely time to start thinking about what a world made of plastic would look like.
Photo credit: Ben Salter.