There’s Plastic Everywhere, Even in Rocks

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.

39 comments

Mark Donners
Mark Donner2 years ago

Humanity is a curse

Manuela C.
Manuela C2 years ago

That's just awful.

Donna F.
Donna F2 years ago

very sad. I try to recycle what I can.

Roxana Saez
Roxana Saez2 years ago

TYFS

Fi T.
Fi T2 years ago

Can our life rely on something more eco-friendly?

Fi T.
Fi T2 years ago

Can our life rely on something more eco-friendly?

Debra G.
Debra G2 years ago

Plastics do make our lives easier, but at quite a cost. Thank you to those who recycle, clean up, and/or avoid plastics.

holly masih
h masih2 years ago

yikes

Catherine B.
Cath B2 years ago

PLEASE EVERYONE. When you do use plastic, as you will, remove the plastic ring on the necks of bottles and any plastic item that forms a ring that can get around the neck of wildlife, particularly birds, and kill them.
Recently a friend who has had a Bower bird in his garden for 17 years found his beloved bird dead from asphyxiation. Bower birds collect all things blue and had got the blue ring from a milk bottle that choked him to death. The unfortunate thing is that males build the bower and of course it has to be good enough to win the female bower. The males dont mature to get to this stage till they are about 10 years old, so the young males from a previous match no longer have a dad to teach them how to build the bower and to keep it clean and tidy. And it will be quite a few years before they are mature enough to mate. So it is very sad.
SO PLEASE, cut all "rings" so this cant happen to any animal.

Ruhee B.
Ruhee B2 years ago

Plastic pollution is a huge problem. We have to remember that plastic breaks down into ever smaller pieces which then cannot be seen so it's probably a million times worse than it looks!! Yet another crime, committed by the human species, against the environment and all the wildlife/sealife.