Plastic trash, ©Angelo Villagomez/Marine Photobank

Plastic Threats to Wildlife

In the Ocala National Forest of Florida, a black bear cub digs through trash, only to have its head become encased entirely in a plastic jar. It takes the Florida Game and Fish Commission 10 days to finally track down and rescue the cub. A California brown pelican carries around a plastic bag twisted low around its neck. On a protected reserve in Brazil a boa constrictor is found with a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic ring slipped over its body, forming a tight noose. A stork in Europe has its entire upper body sheathed inside a large plastic bag. Herons, ducks, opossums, and gulls are entrapped by six-pack rings. These are just a few of the disturbing images that demonstrate the harm that can befall our wildlife from plastic waste.

Swan swallowing plastic bag, ©Liquid Productions, LLC/Marine Photobank

Humans produce as much as 300 million tons of new plastics across our planet each year. Plastic production worldwide just keeps growing as it displaces other durable (but more expensive) materials, like glass and metal. Today, an average person living in Western Europe or in North America uses around 200 pounds of plastic annually, mostly in the form of packaging. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, 20-40% of the plastic used worldwide is disposed of in landfills, where its resources are wasted, taking up valuable space, blighting communities, and harming wildlife. A mere 12% of plastic waste gets recycled, with unrecycled plastic materials typically getting sent to landfills where they may take as long as 1,000 years to decompose. Unlike paper or cotton, plastic does not biodegrade. It only breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces over very long times. These fragments, along with manufactured micro-plastic beads, pose an even worse hazard to aquatic wildlife.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags alone are used worldwide each year. And less than 1% of these bags ever end up being recycled. Consequently, they pose a severe hazard to wildlife, both on land and in our waters. More than 250 species of fish, sea turtles, marine birds, seals, whales and dolphins have suffered from eating or becoming entangled in marine debris from plastics.

Albatross at Midway Atoll Refuge with plastic in stomach, ©Chris Jordan

So what can you do to help protect wildlife from plastic?

Recycling is a good step – but purchasing a product that uses plastic to begin with can simply continue to drive demand. The most common single-use plastic items are bottles, bags, straws, utensils, lids and cups. Find reusable, non-plastic alternatives for these items, like canvas grocery bags or stainless steel straws.

Another way you can help is to encourage your local government to ban plastic bags. Some are already doing this in supermarkets, drug stores, or even all retailers. You can also pick up any plastic litter you see and place it in a recycling bin, and  you can organize a community cleanup day and volunteer to pick up plastic litter on the beach, near local streams, in a nearby park, or along roads.

It’s also important to remember that plastic debris is more than just a litter problem. To understand the full range of its impacts, we need to look at plastic big and small. Later this month, we’ll cover microplastics – a nearly invisible but equally devastating threat to wildlife.

Microbeads, Macro Problem

Smaller than 5 millimeters, microbeads wash down the drain, slip through most wastewater treatment systems and eventually end up in the sea where fish, mussels, crabs and more mistake them for fish eggs and eat them.

Read More »

Categories: Wildlife

44 Responses to “Plastic Threats to Wildlife”

  1. la marca monique

    Stop polluting environment and wildlife with plastic. Marine animals must be protected.

    • megahn

      This is just sickening. Why can’t people throw there trash away in the trash can or put it in recycling? I keep saying….once wildlife becomes extinct..we stupid humans are not far behind. Why are humans so stupid?????

  2. Steven Urquhart

    Require communities to recycle by federal law. This will greatly reduce the plastic thrown out that is then released into the sea by municipal trash dumping. The city where I live provides recycling pickup while the county doesn’t. Without that encouragement many in the county do not recycle.

    • Cathi

      I live in a town where we have to recycle, Great! But the types of products they allow in our recycle bins is limited. Have you ever noticed how most meats and produce is packaged in plastic? I don’t know what we are supposed to do with this type, which no recycling plant that I know of …. will take. We need more information and education.
      Also I teach my grand kids to cut apart ALL 6 pack plastic rings.

  3. Marlene

    I use cloth shopping bags not plastic. I cut plastic rings in half before disposing. Before I throw anything away I think if any animal or bird could be harmed in anyway by what I’m throwing away. To me, every product made should be recyclable to reduce landfills. We are a very wasteful people, we take from the land and never give back, and in the end we will suffer the consequences of our actions.

  4. Betsy Restly

    Recycling must be made mandatory in all states to preserve our wildlife and their habitats. Alternatives to plastic should be used despite the cost if we are to preserve some of our greatest treasures.

  5. andreas hoos

    wir müssen dem plastik ein ende setzen ! es hat verheerende wirkungen auf die ganze welt , nicht nur das meer !

  6. Sharon

    Why in the world are we still using plastic shopping bags???? They SHOULD be outlawed!!! REUSE REUSE REUSE PLEASE!!

  7. Mark Blitzer

    We live by plastic…and the animals die. We need to do better with more options for recycling and regulations against certain packaging, such as the ban on Styrofoam and large plastic grocery bags already in place in my local jurisdiction.

  8. terri

    It’s a real shame how people liter. It’s bad enough people throw trash on the street or yards of homes, but it is a great shame liter is thrown in bodies of water and animals pay the price by dying behind these acts of lazy selfish people. There should be a large fine slapped on people throwing plastic and trash into water, it ‘s more serious than people care to know or think.
    I am so disgusted by this.

    • susan

      it’s not littering that causes plastic to end up in the ocean- it comes from the trash cans when the wind blows them over. i live a block from the beach & after a wind storm, i saw 2 birds die on the beach the following day, when the beach was covered in the city’s trash.
      Stop using plastic. At all. It is ruining everything. There is now more plastic than fish in the oceans.

  9. Anna Drechsler

    There is no excuse for throwing plastic into landfills! Many stores, cities and states already have recycling programs! It doesn’t take much of work to bundle plastic bags and take them away for recycling or take hard plastic trash to collection centers. It may take once a month trip! We have busy life, but not to the point of having thoughtless life style. If there is no recycling in the area, take plastic trash to someone(friend , family) who lives closer and is using recycling program. Earth is so crowded now and for the sake of our children we have to start living sustainably, leave as little trash as possible! Reuse, renew, recycle.

  10. Anna Drechsler

    There is no excuse for throwing plastic into landfills! Many stores, cities and states already have recycling programs! It doesn’t take much of work to bundle plastic bags and take them away for recycling or take hard plastic trash to collection centers. It may take once a month trip! We have busy life, but not to the point of having thoughtless life style. If there is no recycling in the area, take plastic trash to someone(friend , family) who lives closer and is using recycling program. Earth is so crowded now and for the sake of our children we have to start living sustainably, leave as little trash as possible! Reuse, renew, recycle

  11. maija gadient

    please, please I am begging the shops to stop giving away tons of plastic bags, that will fly around the neighbourhood first and at the end fly into the waters……..
    Thank you maija

  12. JSG

    This is horrific. We must ban these plastic bags! These poor animals are suffering because of this – also make recycling mandatory.

  13. cindra

    yes…plastic was a good idea versus glass…but since the 1970″s when recycling became a hit…since then the plastic has gotten out of let us see what else can be done…thanks!

  14. Laurie

    Seeing this brings tears to my eyes!!! These poor animals need our Best Protections Desperately and depend upon us to to do better for them. I am mindful of everything I dispose of these days, before discarding. Everything really needs to be recyclable & it Must be Mandatory EVERYWHERE!!~~`

  15. Linda Kirsch

    When wildlife suffers, we all suffer. Prevention is worth more than the expense of trying to clean up the damage we have done. The life lost can’t be regained.
    Linda Kirsch

  16. Leotien Parlevliet

    We have to stop to pollute our oceans and all its precious life. For if the oceans die, we die too

  17. Cherylin Smith

    Our trash shouldn’t be causing the suffering of other living things.

  18. Barbara Letsom

    I’ve written a children’s book, five years in the making, about this very issue. Anyone interested in publishing or illustrating, email me at bjoybeads at Hotmail.

  19. Michelle Kaufman

    If the packaging isn’t biodegradable, it shouldn’t be in use. At least Corporations should be investigating alternative materials for packaging AND have less packaging. We don’t need produce wrapped in plastic wrap and styrofoam. Styrofoam should be banned. Period. When I look down the detergent aisle of the grocery store it’s a minefield of waste and toxins that pollute our environment.
    Products with microbeads should immediately be pulled from the store shelves, not phased out.
    Fast food restaurants can reduce their disposables by copying Panera – they use quite a bit of non-disposable dishes.
    Ban the use of plastic bags, and in the meantime charge people every time they want one at the stores.

  20. Maria Celia Hernandez

    I believe that no matter from where people are young or old , throwing plastics bags , whether in the beach, As many times people bring these bags to the beach and the win push them away, and they just don’t go to catch ,grab that bag .Letting the bag keep flowing. Young adults teens that know how to swim and can help clean , Will be a very important assistance for the sake to make and keep clean those places that millions love to visit .Just like the wild creatures ,Birds and ducks and other ocean and land animals that deserve to have their world cleaner ,Because Humans and animals enjoy the fresh air , the sandy beach and the clean water of the ocean. If you see a bag been thrown or a bag that flew away or the beach dirty Please if you see a person doing that , Pick it up right there and then, Let them Know that ; That is also your river and your beach too. And you want to see it clean keep it clean and they should too. to visit , All can help Clean it and Keep it Beautiful.

    Thank you for sharing this horrible pelican death, This should not let keep happening. People have to become more sensible and caring for the world they been given freely. To love ,enjoy, and protect it. MCH 2-7-2016

  21. Denise henyard

    I use to litter I hate to admit it but now I know what it does to the wildlife and I don’t do it anymore . U wish everyone could think about the harm they are doing to these animals before they decide to be careless . I do , now?

  22. Carol

    I totally agree with all of these comments. I find plastic bags to be especially horrific when I see them caught in tree branches and blowing along the ground. Making more items recyclable is only as good as the public willing to recycle. To many people the convenience of throwing items in the trash is easier. I will continue to encourage others to be responsible. We need to respect and take care of our world before it is too late.


  23. Joan joinville

    We need more education and documentaries shown in schools. We need to educate the next generation as much as possible.

  24. Rene

    I NEVER use plastic bags and I now carry two stainless steel straws in my purse, for me and my hubby. I store food in glass containers and never by plastic wrap or plastic storage bags.

  25. Carol Cooperrider

    Recycling should be mandatory and big box stores like Walmart should be fined if they don’t clean up the plastic bags littering their neighborhood. There should also be incentives for not using plastic. Also, companies such as Yoplait that continue to distribute containers shown to be hazardous to wildlife should be fined.
    As individuals we need to take more responsibility. It is a subject that could be addressed in school curriculum. The future depends on us all.

  26. Mark Rieser

    I work in the refuse collection industry, and have been trying for years to get someone to publish a motto for plastic, which flies out of the garbage trucks as they drive down the road. Of course, most of it ends up in waterways. The motto, or slogan, is Tie It or Fly It.
    Most garbage trucks today are top loading. Top doors, and containment brush systems are lacking or inoperative on most of them. There seems to be no law regarding it either, so I always knot up loose plastic to keep it in the trucks and get it to its destination. I am just one person though, and I believe these issues deserve immediate and widespread consideration.

  27. Vivien Smith

    Cutting plastic rings in half before disposal is an excellent idea. Will copy that one!

  28. Mike Gannon

    Plastics are out of control! We have been ways and can replace this garbage with recylcleable/biodegradable products! Hey, we control our own destiny. Or have we become so stupid as to not realize that?

  29. Maureen

    Plastic has become an epidemic. Plastic needs to be banned. We should be recycling 100 percent but why are the numbers so staggering low? Plastic needs to be banned worldwide. We need all packaging to be biodegradible no matter what the cost! You can’t compare the cost to the absolute destruction of this planet. Plastic is so toxic. The prediction for 2050 in our oceans there will be more plastic than fish! We have to all help clean up too! Businesses and homeowners need and shpuld be required to pick up all trash around their homes and businesses. I live in a small community and there’s so much garbage everywhere. I pick up garbage everywhere I go whether it’s at a park a grocery store resturaunt etc. But I can’t do it all. Everyone needs to do their part. I plan to organize some clean up days and hope others will do the same. It’s a huge problem and we must act on it now!

  30. Breena

    Our world is dying. We must come up with incentives for people to change their wasteful behaviors. If we change the demand, we change the supply.

  31. Vida

    I am committed to do my part to protect wildlife from plastic and I hope you can help us do that. We need your help. Thank you!

  32. susan

    Just stop using plastic. Chances are, it will end up in the ocean if you use it, but at least do not take it to the beach, even to think you’ll recycle or trash it. I pick up about 20 straws washed ashore about every 100 feet.
    That doesn’t even make a dent in the plastic problem on the beach.
    There is now more plastic than fish in the ocean.
    Plastic should be illegal.
    It is ruining everything.

  33. Doreen Mann

    I have beeb reading about Puffins have been dying from eating plastic beeds in the water. They swallow them and they get into their stomach and can’t digest them and die. We can’t affordcto loose any more Puffins or any sea birds. Climate change has us all concered about the possibilities of not enough fish for the sea birds coming back to Maine in the Spring to have more young ones.

  34. Christine MacMurray

    The pictures of wildlife killed by plastic are heart-breaking. I pledge to reduce my plastic footprint as much as I possibly can.

  35. Bill Shadel

    I’m reading a lot of comments that at least imply that better recycling is the solution. I don’t believe it is because so much of what gets into the environment is accidental. What we need is less plastic. That means changing our consumption.

    One solution: Drink tap water. Don’t buy into the myth that bottled is cleaner and safer because it isn’t and never has been. Carry a clean reusable bottle with you and fill it up before you leave home or when you’re on the road.

  36. kathleen

    stop producing plastic, if we can fly to the moon,we should be able to invent a truly disposable substitute. Money will be at the source of this, Invent someway of totally dissolving existing plastic. We managed quite well without it years ago.

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