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How many animals die from plastic?


Every year millions of tons of plastics enter the world’s ecosystem as a result of staggering global plastic production. Much of these plastics end up in waterways and the world’s oceans leading to highly damaging environmental effects. A UN report has predicted that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans will exceed the amount of fish by 2050. Marine life is particularly impacted by the epidemic of plastic pollution as many end up ingesting plastic products which can result in death. It’s not just animals that are at risk from plastic pollution however…

Statistics on plastic waste

According to Statista only 15% of all the world’s plastic waste is actually collected for recycling. The rest makes its way into the environment and naturally has a negative impact on wildlife. Global plastics production has doubled to almost 400 million metric tons per year in 2021 since the turn of the century. When accounted for the percentage recycled, this means 340 million tons of plastic waste are likely to end up in landfills and similar dumping grounds. According to Plastic Oceans.org, 10 million tons of plastics are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, that’s the equivalent of a dump truck’s worth of plastic every minute.

This may seem like a reasonable solution however problems start to arise when you consider the time it takes for plastics to degrade and break down. The average lifespan of plastic products is ten years however some plastics can take up to 500 years to fully decompose. Scarier still is that current projections put global plastics production at 1 billion metric tons by 2060. Some plastic waste disposal treatments involve incineration however this is also environmentally harmful as it emits pollutants.

Currently the UK and US make up the bulk of plastic waste production with China, Indonesia and Vietnam also some of the worst contributors. When most people think of plastic waste, they tend to think of shopping bags and other plastic products floating on the shoreline or washed up on a beach. In truth this is only part of the problem, as some products that you may not even suspect of containing plastics are actually riddled with them. Face scrubs, soaps, toothpaste and shower gels have often been found to contain microbeads as an ingredient and have been banned from sale in England and Scotland as of 2018. Whilst this is a good start, there is a long way to go to properly tackle the issue.

How many animals die from plastic

Putting an exact number on the amount of wildlife killed annually due to plastic pollution is difficult, however this does not mean we don’t have a good idea of the damage being caused. According to a World Wildlife Fund study, the number of marine mammals killed by plastics each year is around 100,000 from various different species. This is excluding the number of fish and marine reptiles that choke on plastic debris as getting an exact number for this is exceptionally difficult. What we do know however is that many marine animals, particularly turtles and fish are having plastic debris removed from their stomachs and body when washed up or tagged by researchers. Many marine creatures mistake plastic products for food and consume these or get entangled in plastic products. This is just one part of the larger problem of pollution affecting the world’s oceans. Wildlife such as seagulls are routinely found with rubbish and plastics in their digestive tracks as plastic pollution begins to spread. The problem is not just limited to the world’s oceans as many plastic products are also washed up on shore or blown inland, creating a problem for land animals also.

Plastic in the ocean statistics

According to UNESCO, some 80% of all marine pollution is the result of plastic waste. It is estimated that there are trillions of pieces of plastic currently polluting the world’s oceans. Further to this, plastics can be found floating in the most remote areas of the oceans and even forming plastic islands or ‘garbage patches’ of clumped floating plastic debris. With estimates that there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050, the situation is desperate. Marine life will also ingest these plastics mistaking them as food and this in turn will spread to other marine life and up the food chain. It will also put human consumers at risk as they will increasingly be eating from contaminated fish stocks.

Microplastics are so small they can run through our veins and our lungs. They have even been discovered in human breast milk.

Health hazards to humans

Not only does plastic pollution harm the environment and wildlife, it also has an impact on human health and well-being. Microplastics can permeate into our drinking water, food and even the air we breathe. National Geographic has reported that microplastics are now being found in locations as remote as Mt Everest, indicating the truly global reach of the problem. Cans of commercial Tuna are also being found to contain microplastics, showing how far down the food chain plastic pollution has become an issue. Microplastics also contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals which can influence human hormones. The exact impact of these chemicals on human development, particularly around those who are pre-pubescent is not fully understood however many health experts have voiced concern. Unfortunately, the full impact of plastic pollution on human health has not yet been fully understood but there are strong indications that human health will suffer as a result of increased microplastics and pollution.

These potential negative impacts will not just be limited to countries with high pollution statistics, as superfine nanoplastics can travel great distances and effectively find their way to the most remote corners of the globe as mentioned in the case of Mt Everest.

Plastic Oceans.org estimates that the average person will ingest over 40 pounds of plastic in their lifetime.

Why it matters

The impacts of plastic pollution are far and wide and unless greater effort is made to tackle the issue, we may see catastrophic ecological, economic and health impacts for generations to come. Plastics take a long time to degrade and so they linger in the environment, being ingested by animals and making their way into water supplies and human food sources. Cancer Wellness has also stated that the carcinogenic properties of microplastics can have detrimental effects on human health over time as nanoplastics build up in the body. As the world produces more plastic which then goes on to degrade into finer micro and nonplastics, air quality and food sources become more contaminated and the impacts on human health are likely to become more pronounced.

Plastic production in the last 10 years has produced more plastic products than in the entire 20th century

What you can do

Whilst much of the world’s plastic products are unfortunately single-use and therefore difficult to efficiently dispose of, one of the first steps you can take to protect wildlife is ensuring that you are recycling your plastic products in the correct manner. This may seem straightforward but it does add up when enough people participate.

  • Recycle your plastics
  • Reduce your plastic consumption
  • Donate to NGOs working to improve plastic pollution
  • Look for NGO volunteer opportunities
  • Do your research on the topic
  • Engage with groups you feel can or are making a difference

Whilst there is no quick fix to the issue of plastic pollution, it is likely that governments around the world will become increasingly pressurised by their citizens to take stronger action as the problem grows more severe. In the meantime the best way for individuals to make a difference is to be aware of their wastage and to minimise plastic consumption where they can.





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