Almost 250 kilos of plastic waste are dumped into the seas and oceans every second. Most of this waste originates inland and is carried into the ocean by tributaries and the wind. Around 75% of this pollution is invisible to our eyes, sinking to the bottom of the oceans or floating offshore between two waters.
Yet this plastic pollution poses a very real threat to marine life. Seabirds, in particular, are severely affected. By mistaking them for prey, they ingest plastic substances that can have dramatic consequences for their health, leading to blocked airways, a feeling of satiety, blockage of the digestive tract and premature death.
A recent study by Hayley S. Charlton-Howard examined the effects of plastics on the tissues of pale-footed shearwaters in Australia. The researchers discovered a new disease, “plasticosis”, induced by plastic ingestion. Indeed, the results of the study showed that seabirds that ingested macroplastics (larger than 5 mm in diameter) and microplastics (smaller than 5 mm in diameter) exhibited increased fibrosis in their tissues. Excessive formation of scar tissue, fibrosis was noted in organs in direct contact with plastics, and more particularly in the animal’s digestive tract and stomach. These internal organs become lined with scars that do not reabsorb, and become deformed, with consequences for the animal’s growth, digestive capacity and survival. Natural elements such as pumice were also found in the organs concerned. However, they did not cause similar scarring, highlighting the unique pathological properties of plastics.
This study underlines the importance of better understanding the impact of plastics on living organisms, and of combating this pollution. It is now estimated that 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. Launched in 2021, LIFE SeaBiL is a 3-year European project. In Spain, France and Portugal, it is assessing the impact of plastic on seabirds, by conducting analyses on their stomach tissues. It is also helping to protect seabirds from plastic pollution by implementing effective measures, in particular by stemming this pollution at source.