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Plastic Will be in 99 Percent of Seabird Tummies by 2050 if Pollution Continues

First Posted: Sep 01, 2015 08:04 AM EDT

A staggering 99 percent of the world's seabirds may have consumed plastic by 2050. Researchers have assessed how widespread the threat of plastic is for the world's seabirds and have found that it may be far worse than first thought.

Birds often mistake brightly colored plastic items for food, or swallow them by accident. This can cause gut impaction, weight loss and sometimes even death.

In this latest study, the researchers analyzed published studies since the early 1960s. They found that plastic is increasingly common in seabird's stomachs; in 1960, plastic was found in the stomachs of less than 5 percent of individual seabirds. However, this rose to 80 percent by 2010. Based on these trends, about 90 percent of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind. This includes bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibers from synthetic clothes.

"We predict, using historical observations, that 90 percent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic," said Denise Hardesty, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution. Finding such widespread estimates of plastic in seabirds is borne out by some of the fieldwork we've carried out where I've found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird."

The researchers are particularly concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, who live in regions where plastics had the most devastating impact on species.

"Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife," said Hardesty. "Even simple measures can make a difference. Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs with less than a decade, which suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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