Animals In Therapy | Deep Dive

You think it’s tough living in a milk bottle, try swallowing one!

We’re kidding, right? Actually, we’re not, given that our world is awash with plastic. From construction materials, surgery tools and fishing nets to furniture, clothing, cosmetics and toys, plastic is everywhere. And it’s pouring into our oceans and rivers every minute of every day.

Which means ingesting the stuff isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, especially if you’re an ocean dwelling goby or puffer fish. (Or any one of the hundreds of other marine species found to have swallowed plastic, including 210 species that humans regularly chow down on.) This somewhat unnatural food choice isn’t going away anytime soon, either.

Pollution and plastic gyres

Plastic in our seas is most visible in ocean gyres. These naturally occurring swirling currents draw in all types of debris. There are five major subtropical gyres in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The biggest collection of trash in one of them is thought to be the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

Imagine 79,000 tons of floating plastic in an area twice the size of Texas. Over time this plastic breaks down into tiny pieces known as microplastics. These little guys and their even smaller cousins, nanoplastics – invisible to the naked eye – have been found in almost every drop of water tested…

Synthetic fish?

Of course, it’s having an effect. Fish and other marine creatures live and swim in it. They also mistake microplastics for food, especially when bacteria and other microorganisms have attached themselves. Predators like Atlantic bluefin tuna and chinook salmon appear to eat the most, but no one’s excluded from this party – not seabirds, corals, jellyfish or plankton.

As well as giving a false sense of being full, which can affect growth, plastics that are swallowed affect all sorts of bodily functions and even kill. What’s more, the chemicals that leak from them impact anything from the ability to fight off disease to the potential to reproduce. And since some humans eat fish, the obvious question has to be, what’s this plasticization of the marine world doing to us?!

Using less plastic and alternatives

Thankfully, we’re not the only ones concerned. Increased public awareness and pressure has led to many countries banning at least some single-use plastics. Around the world companies are reducing the amount of plastic they use, recycling more and switching to natural alternatives. The Plastic Bank, which collects and sells plastic, has brought together 200 companies to stop 2 billion plastic bottles from entering the world’s oceans. And measures like charges on plastic bags – which meant UK supermarkets sold 332 million fewer in 2019 than the previous year – are making a difference.

All this is good. Even so, scientists have warned that the amount of plastic entering our oceans could increase to 29 million metric tons a year by 2040. If they’re right, in roughly two decades’ time the plastic trash accumulated in the sea could total 600 million metric tons.

Get involved

Clearly, there is still a lot more that needs to be done to reduce our consumption of plastic and prevent it from finding its way into the ocean. If you’re passionate about these issues and want to share with your friends, please repost this video or infographic. You can learn more by signing up to our newsletter and checking out organizations that we think are doing a great job:

  • Click here to sign up to our On the Edge newsletter. Once a month we’ll send you great stories about endangered species and the natural world.

  • Surfers Against Sewage is a grassroots charity dedicated to protecting the sea and its wildlife.

  • Kids Against Plastic is run by sisters Amy and Ella Meek, who look for ways to reduce single-use plastic and viable alternatives.

  • Break Free from Plastic was launched in 2016. It’s a global movement working to find solutions to plastic pollution across its entire life cycle.