Changing Planet

Wandering Albatross by Abby McBride

Turn the Plastic Tide—for Seabirds, the Environment, and Human Health

When the United States Embassy in New Zealand asks if you’ll do an Earth Day post about impacts of mismanaged waste on the global environment—with a focus on seabirds—what do you do? Quick, call Lilly Sedaghat and Steph Borrelle!

Sedaghat is one of my four fellow Fellows (2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, that is), currently studying waste management in Taiwan. Borrelle is a seabird researcher I’ve worked with during my own storytelling project in New Zealand. She’s based in Auckland but will soon head to Canada as a Smith Fellow focusing on mitigation of plastic pollution.

This week Borrelle, Sedaghat, and I had a group video chat about the plastic problem: what’s so bad about the situation we’re in (for seabirds, humans, and the environment), and what we can do about it. Our conversation about this massive topic is massively simplified below…

Lilly Sedaghat, Steph Borrell, and Abby McBride

How does plastic pollution affect humans and the environment? (And how do seabirds fit into that story?)

Plastic is flooding into the ocean with ever-growing speed: around 8 million metric tons of it entered the sea in 2010, projected to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025. Besides being disturbing to think about, that gargantuan amount of nondecomposing material does all sorts of damage. One of plastic’s most insidious roles, Borrelle said, is as a sponge for toxins. When animals eat microplastics and are in turn eaten by other animals, those toxins get passed up the food chain and concentrated in apex predators—like seabirds, and humans.

In some parts of the world, including New Zealand, humans may actually ingest toxin-laced plastics through seabirds. As we speak, there’s a traditional annual seabird harvest happening on the southern New Zealand islands, just off of Rakiura (where I’m stationed right now). About 400,000 sooty shearwaters—known by Māori as tītī—are harvested on these islands every year, Borrelle said. She is working on a project involving the passage of toxins from plastics to seabirds to humans, and has colleagues studying how that phenomenon “is being translated into human health impacts.” It’s an issue particularly in need of investigation, she noted, because these indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by other negative social and economic factors.

Unsurprisingly, plastic can also harm the seabirds themselves. Toxins carried by ingested microplastics can be absorbed into body tissues; many such chemicals are estrogen mimickers that can cause reproductive problems. Larger plastic fragments pose other problems with fatal results—they can damaging internal organs when eaten, or simply entangle and drown wildlife. The biggest problem, Borrelle said, is when parents feed chicks a regurgitated meal containing plastics, which ends up killing the young birds through starvation and dehydration. Zooming out to the population level, a lot remains to be studied. Borrelle is in the midst of a project looking at the factors that might influence seabirds to ingest plastic, to see if it’s possible to predict the risk for species we don’t have data on yet. She has hopes to get more studies running, with the collaboration of groups such as the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust, to find out more about plastic ingestion and the impacts on wildlife in understudied regions.

It pays to investigate these effects on seabirds, and not just for their own sake. Being long-lived and slow-reproducing animals that spend their lives on the ocean, seabirds are particularly good bioindicators of ocean health. “They’ve been telling us about these sort of plastic pollution levels since the 1970s,” Borrelle said. “New Zealand was one of the first places we found plastic in birds,” specifically in fairy prions washed up on the beach. In the northern hemisphere, she said, a study on northern fulmars is “one of the longest and most extensive plastic ingestion monitoring programs for any species,” but much more study is needed in the southern hemisphere. Seeing Antarctic albatrosses coming from the southern ocean with plastic in them, Borrelle said, brings home the direness of the situation.

What can people do to turn the tide of plastic pollution?

To combat the plastic problem, individual people can take responsibility for their trash—in terms of choosing and using materials, as well as channeling those materials onward to waste management systems. Sedaghat is leading by example: she is currently video-blogging her 12-day zero-plastic waste challenge, and on an ongoing basis is providing resources for people to understand waste management systems and how best to use them (e.g. “7 things you didn’t know about plastic and recycling“).

But in order to navigate that complexity, people have to care—enough to pay attention and change their habits. Borrelle has encountered plenty of resistance while working to make the city of Auckland plastic-bag free. “People like convenience,” she said. “A lot of people tend to resist change when they think it’s going to affect their quality of life.” One way of convincing people that the effort is worthwhile: putting the unsavory effects of plastic into the forefront of public consciousness. Sedaghat is currently working on ways of doing that in Taiwan. “A lot of the challenge has to do with people not visually seeing or being affected personally in their own lives by the results of plastic over the long term: how it affects sea animals, how it affects the human body.”

So educating individuals on consumption, disposal, and effects of plastic is vital. But individuals’ ability to control their own plastic use and disposal depends on many factors, including what products are available to them and what waste management systems are set up where they live. A recycling symbol, Sedaghat notes, is by no means a guarantee that waste is being recycled. In both New Zealand and Taiwan, a lot of “recycling” is currently going straight to the dump (more so now that China has stopped accepting imports of plastic waste), simply because there are insufficient facilities and systems in place. “Recycling companies are only effective if there’s money to be made off those recycled products,” Sedaghat said.

That concept holds true at the production end as well as the disposal end. “Everything comes down to the market, and the price in the market, and what people want in the market,” Sedaghat said. Real change comes from governments pushing against the big industries that have control over the market—which in case of plastics is none other than the petroleum industry. So how can individuals play a role in that change? How can you make a dent in the sea of plastic packaging that greets you in the supermarket, or a city-wide waste system that channels your recycling to the dump?

I asked if community groups provide that much-needed bridge between individuals and the larger political and economic game, and Sedaghat and Borrelle concurred. “Community groups have been the strongest leaders in actually pushing forward these kinds of initiatives,” Borrelle said. She cited the case of New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, where islanders had their own system with “an incredibly high quality of recoverable waste” that was in high demand for overseas buyers.  “That kind of grassroots movement is really important for providing evidence to governments that people actually want to see change.”

Steph Borrelle, Lilly Sedaghat, and Abby McBride

What’s the outlook for the plastic problem?

There are parallels between the anti-plastic mission, Borrelle said, and the crusade against smoking that began in the 20th century. Notably, each of those movements has involved standing up against the marketing and lobbying of a giant industry. “Plastic and oil are intimately related,” she said. “Eight percent if not more of the oil extracted every year is turned into plastic products—so you are fighting against this massive propoganda machine.”

That battle includes dispelling fear-mongering rooted in industry interests. “The idea that you would ‘lose jobs’ is a scary thought, but the reality is that people will adapt to what the market desires,” Sedaghat said. She described a situation in Taiwan where plastic manufacturers—many of them small family businesses—adapted instantly to a demand for corn starch plastics by overseas companies. “They literally just take the same system, same machines, and they just insert the corn-based pellets versus the oil-based pellets into the machines to create the plastics,” she said.  “And they’re able to do that because there’s money that’s made.”

As the smoking status quo has taken decades upon decades to shift, we can expect a similarly prolonged time frame for improvement in plastic waste management. “Social change can be super slow,” Borrelle said, yet it snowballs as people are influenced by the shifting attitudes of their peers. In another parallel, methods that proved effective in changing attitudes about smoking can be applied to plastics. One such strategy for inducing change—particularly at the legislative level—is focusing on human health impacts, which are closely tied to environmental health impacts particularly where plastics are concerned.

Despite the rampant overuse of plastic bags and other single-use products that will never decompose, and really shouldn’t be brought into the world by sane humans, it’s important to remember that plastics are invaluable for certain purposes, Borrelle said. Among other things they can offer crucial benefits in medical fields, furnish vital access to clean water and food, and help save the day after natural disasters. But plastic production and use needs to be accompanied by an infrastructure that can actually handle the waste, without the egregious environmental damage we’re seeing right now.

“It’s always more complex than these really simplistic ideas that get bandied about,” Borrelle said. “But if we don’t do anything, the long-term impacts are going to be incredibly severe.”

This has been a very superficial dip into a deep issue that I’m just starting to learn about. To really dive into it, follow Steph Borrelle and Lilly Sedaghat as they each investigate how to turn the plastic tide—for the benefit of seabirds, humans, and everything else.

Sketch biologist Abby McBride once harbored aspirations of being a Victorian-era naturalist explorer. Adapting her career goals to the 21st century, she now travels globally to sketch wildlife and write multimedia stories about science and conservation. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow in New Zealand, home to the most diverse and endangered seabirds in the world, Abby is reporting on extraordinary efforts to reverse centuries of human-caused harm to penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and more. Through art and digital media she aims to convey a sense of the beauty, fascination, and importance of seabirds, which are quickly disappearing from seas and shores worldwide. Abby is based on the Maine coast and has degrees in biology and science writing from Williams College and MIT. Follow @sketchbiologist on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (or get email updates).

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