Birds in the Pacific Northwest eat the most plastic…so what can we do?

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Birds in the Pacific Northwest eat the most plastic…so what can we do?

A study published this summer found that seabirds studied off the coast of British Columbia and Washington have “among the highest” consumption of plastic in the world.  Researchers examined 67 Northern Fulmars who washed up dead on the shores of Vancouver Island and Long Beach, Washington.  Fulmars are a particularly apt subject for this type of study because they almost always forage at sea and have enormous range; additionally, they “will forage almost anything from the surface of the water.”

Northern Fulmar

92% of Northern Fulmars have ingested plastic. (Photo: Andreas Trepte, Wikimedia Commons)

The results of the study found that each bird had ingested an average of .385 grams of plastic, up from .12 grams in 1987 and .04 in 1969 to 1977.   Back then, barely 60% of the fulmars studied had ingested plastic; in 1987, the number had climbed to about 85%, and by 2009/2010, it was at 92%.

“We have known about this problem for 40 years and not only have we failed to do anything about it, it has actually gotten worse.” (Dr. George Wallace, American Bird Conservancy)

So what can we do about it?  The study says that 95% of the plastics consisted of “twine, rope, fishing line, Styrofoam, hard pieces of discarded plastic (e.g., bottled caps), fiber sponge, and sheet plastic.”  An obvious answer is that we all need to be diligent about recycling, but that won’t be enough if we’re buying lots of plastic products or stuff with excessive packaging, plenty of which can’t be recycled anyway. (I’ve found to be very helpful resource when it comes to finding a place to recycle all kinds of things in BC, including electronics.) “Reduce, reuse, recycle”–and in that order specifically–is still a fantastic motto, but we should add “repair” to that list too: don’t toss something when you could get it repaired or fix it yourself.  And don’t forget that “reuse” applies not only to our own stuff but to that of other people: you might be surprised by how many great finds (plastic or not) there are in your local thrift store.  Buying used is a win on every level: you don’t need to worry about overconsumption or environmental impact or supporting sweatshop labour, and it costs less.

drowned albatross caught on fishing line

This albatross became caught on a fishing line and drowned. Most species of albatross are endangered, but 100,000 are killed annually by longline fishing. (Photo: Tamar Brazil, Marine Photobank)

And when it comes to fishing line, well… it comes as no surprise that fishing hurts more than just its intended targets. Birds of all kinds, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, and many others are all killed by fishing lines, both those used by enormous longline trawlers and small-time recreational fishers.  Just this summer, a young humpback washed up on the shores of White Rock with fishing gear from a longline buried in her mouth. (Article here.)  So one very important way to make a difference is to stop fishing, and eliminate–or in the very least, reduce–your consumption of seafood.  And don’t fall for the hype about sustainable fishing.

Other quick and easy ways to make a difference include buying food in bulk, carrying cloth shopping bags, and bringing your own thermos or water bottle rather than utilizing a one-use cup that will be thrown out immediately after you’re done with it.  Oh, and if you buy a six-pack of soda or beer, please cut up the plastic rings that hold them all together.  I can’t tell you how many intact six-pack rings I find on the street in my neighbourhood.  (Actually, I can, because I am a little crazy and have been keeping track of how many I’ve had to cut up since the beginning of 2012–as of my writing this, I’m at twenty-three, and that’s absolutely ridiculous considering that I’m not looking for the things.) We live right next to the ocean, people!  This is elementary stuff!

turtle caught in plastic rings

Cut up those rings!

What other suggestions do you have for decreasing our reliance on plastic or reducing its environmental impact? What works for you?  If you have any tips, please leave them in the comment section!


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