Death by Plastic Ingestion Is Increasing Among Sea Creatures

by Megan Ray Nichols 

Research suggests that around eight million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans each year — enough to fill five plastic bags for every foot of coastline on the planet.

This plastic has a more significant impact than just being unsightly though. It’s killing growing numbers of marine creatures. One of the most comprehensive studies of the issue to date, conducted by researchers at Plymouth University, found that documented cases of floating debris affected as many as 700 different species, with plastic making up 92 percent of cases they studied.

How Plastic Affects Marine Life

The plastic that ends up in the ocean impacts sea creatures in a variety of ways. One of the most harmful is plastic ingestion. A wide range of sea creatures eat plastic, either by happenstance or because they mistake it for food.

Research into the impacts of plastic ingestion is ongoing, but both anecdotal and scientific evidence show that it can be extremely harmful. In the worst cases, it can lead to death. It could also have impacts on things such as animals’ metabolism and reproduction.

Impacts All Animals

Plastic ingestion can harm all sorts of marine creatures from the largest to the smallest.

A sperm whale recently washed up onto the coast of Spain. The 33-foot-long whale had more than 65 pounds of plastic in its stomach. It could not expel the plastic, so its digestive became infected.

Research has recently confirmed that anchovies are also eating plastic debris. The debris they ingest is known as microplastic that’s less than five millimeters in length and is made up of partially broken down pieces of plastic.

This doesn’t only affect anchovies though. When larger fish eat the anchovies, they also ingest the plastic. This pattern continues up the food chain and could even eventually make its way to humans.

Surface to Lowest Depths

Plastics also impact creatures from the ocean’s surface down to some of its lowest depths. Turtles tend to eat debris floating near the surface with a translucent appearance, such as bags or balloons. This may be because it looks similar to jellyfish. Seabirds also eat plastic, likely because it collects algae and takes on a smell that’s similar to the food these birds eat.

Researchers have also found microplastics at deep ocean depths. One way it can get there involves tiny ocean invertebrates called larvaceans. The plastic ends up in their fecal pellets, which sink quickly into the deep ocean.

Ingestion isn’t the only way that plastic debris harms marine life either. It can also entangle them and cause damage to their habitats.

Ongoing Projects

The growing amount of research and publicized events, such as the death of the sperm whale off the coast of Spain, has inspired various projects that aim to clean up the oceans.

The sperm whale incident led local officials to launch a public awareness campaign of the plastics issue that included 11 beach cleanup events and 19 public forums. Similar events and campaigns are going on around the world.

Several technological solutions are also making headlines. One of the most promising ideas came from an 18-year-old from the Netherlands named Boyan Slat. He founded an organization called the Ocean Cleanup in 2013 based on a passive plastic collection system.

The system floats and moves with the currents the same way that plastic debris does. A drift anchor keeps the system moving slower than the plastic, however, which enables it to catch it in its solid screen. The organization estimates that it could reduce the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 50 percent in just five years with full deployment. It expects to deploy its first system in mid-2018.

How You Can Help

You don’t necessarily have to be a scientist, engineer, inventor or public official to help protect marine animals from the harm caused by eating plastic.

Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is simply use less disposable plastics. If you do use some disposable plastic, ensure that it gets recycled or reuse it.

Another way to help is to find volunteer activities or participate in cleanup events. Even spreading the word about the plastics issue can also have a profound effect.


Awesome ‘Possum

Today I received a copy of Awesome ‘Possom volume 3 in my mail from Angela Boyle, a natural science illustrator and cartoonist who has curated and edited the fourth volume of Awesome ‘Possum. Before I had laid my hands on the book, I had imagined it to be a few-pages-long book that I would sit down and devour in the evening. Boy I was wrong. When I opened my mailbox, I was pleasantly surprised by a 400 page beast of a book. I flipped a few pages and was blown by thinking about the amount of cumulative effort and coordination that must have gone in realizing this book.

Excited, I sat down and started reading every word from the cover and beyond. Not having ever read an illustrated book, I had judged them to be the books for children. I was too old to enjoy them I had thought. When I sent the pictures of the book to my friends, “Aww that’s such a sweet children’s book” is what I got from these other engineers too. I think this is a disease we engineers have, assuming cartoons = children.

Not having experienced something like this, if that’s you, let me tell you, you should get a volume of Awesome ‘Possum to get rid of that delusion. It is indeed a fantastic book for children of all ages. But it is equally good, if not better, for adults! Adults would definitely extract a lot of great experience and knowledge out of it. That is exactly what I told my friends too.

First of course was a beautiful introduction by Ursula Vernon who has a peculiar hobby of taking pictures of moths, and does it despite being a not-so-great photographer or etymologist. With these hobbies in her life she has managed to do big things which I think will touch you better if you read the actual introduction yourself. Maybe, this book right here was a gateway to my own peculiar hobby I thought, and turned the page.

Being an engineer I honestly do now know a lot about animals. A few general things and when I manage to dig few obscure facts, I get excited, do more research and often write about them on my blog here. My point is that the natural world is inherently very fascinating. If you think it is not, you have not known a lot about it.

Awesome ‘Possom was a perfect exposure of the natural world for me. It talks to me about things like, how I should be thankful for little known scientists like Philip Henry Gosse, Anna Thynne and Jeanne Willepreux Power because of whom we are able to decorate our homes with glass boxes (aquariums) with little alien worlds in them. Or things like how rolling bees in sugar could sometimes be a better way to do a mite count and figure if the mite infection is above the threshold to proceed with a treatment. Because alcohol kills the bees.

I noticed a stark difference in the illustration style of each comic and conveniently found the name of the cartoonist or natural science illustrator on top of every page of that chapter. The works of these talented people from across the North America and the world, compiled into this book, refresh you with a diverse subject matter and illustration style every few minutes. And this is just the volume 3 I’m talking about. Then there’s 1, 2 and 4 which is up on kickstarter right now. Volume 4 includes cover art by Eisner-nominated Tillie Walden, creator of Spinning (First Second, 2017) and a foreword by Jon Chad, creator of Volcanoes: Fire and Life (First Second, 2016). I for sure am going to read all of them. In my free time I have been exploring the amazing works of various artists mentioned on this kickstarter page.


Say, Elise Smorczewski for example. She grew up on a farm that fostered a lifelong fascination with animals of all kinds. And Spratty, a cartoonist living near Philadelphia with their various human companions, two snakes, and two cats. They think reptiles are great. More importantly they have had first hand experiences and deep insights to share from their own experiences. Also, they are a wonderfully reliable to get your science facts from!

Chicken Scratch, by Elise Smorcsewski

I have been finding that the snippets of wisdom I get out of illustrations actually stick as if I someone had told me about them. That’s because everything is so visual and is delivered in a way that is easy to digest. You do not get this out of reading dense textbooks. Especially true for people like me who are not directly involved in natural sciences research. We are not great at extracting knowledge out of reference texts without a significant amount of experience in that particularly narrow field. Just within the first few pages I had extracted enough things to delve deeper into and to write about them on my blog. I will be doing that as I go.

I know that the book / scholar world thrives on criticism. That’s not me. i get my style from reading people like Maria Popova of Brain Pickings who believes in book recommendations rather than book reviews. I want to do that. I do not deem myself capable to criticize the work that I myself am not capable of producing. The only thing I see is the endless value in the thousands of human-hours spent in producing carefully curated work for me.

Rattle snakes have infrared detectors on them. How is that not cool, especially for a person who works with infrared spectra on a daily basis.  I realize the importance of having specialized detectors for getting the right information at the right wavelength range. And that reminds me of how a son and dad open up the rattle of a rattle snake in their youtube video to see how it works. And who would have known that rattle snakes also are great parents. The rattle snake illustrations making it easier for me to understand actual rattle snake research also inspires me to look for, or think about making illustrated research papers for the layman to understand my own field! This source of inspiration does not stop for hundreds of pages.

Do not forget to go explore the kickstarter to help the artists get their fair share for their hard work. 

Humans Are to Blame for These Environmental Disasters

Humans have changed the environment drastically, especially in the last century. As our population has grown, so has our effect on our natural world. Much of that impact has, unfortunately, been negative.

Since our population has begun booming, we’ve made gradual changes to the environment — as well as caused some large, environmental disasters that have caused acute harm both to the environment and human health.

An environmental disaster is an event caused by human activity that’s damaging to the environment. This differentiates it from a natural disaster, which occurs due to natural processes.

Our planet and humankind have seen many environmental disasters in the recent past, but a few stand out as especially costly in terms of money, environmental damage and human health impacts. Here are five of the most catastrophic.

  1. The Dust Bowl

The dust bowl, which occurred in the 1930s in the Southern Plains of the United States, is a well-known environmental disaster. Drought, coupled with rapidly expanding poor agricultural practices, caused dust storms that ripped away the fertile soil of the semi-arid region and created “black blizzards” that reached heights of up to 10,000 feet in the air.

The event made the region virtually uninhabitable and worsened the economic difficulties of the Great Depression. It also inspired lawmakers to pass bills promoting responsible farming practices. It was years before rain finally returned to the region, eventually restoring the plains.

  1. Chernobyl

The Chernobyl disaster is infamous as the most devastating event involving a nuclear power plant in the planet’s history. In 1986, one of the reactors at Chernobyl in Ukraine exploded, spewing huge amounts of radiation into the air.

The explosion itself killed two workers, and more died in the hours following the event. Twenty-eight workers died in the next four months, as did many emergency responders. The radiation may have caused an increase in instances of thyroid cancer in the region.

The radiation also killed all the trees in the area, and the site is still largely off-limits due to fears about the impacts of lingering radiation.

  1. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

When oil spills from a tanker, pipeline or other source, it can harm wildlife and ecosystems and contaminate groundwater and soil, as well as impact human health. The destruction of plant life associated with oil spills can increase erosion by as much as four times the normal amount.

One of the most infamous oil spills occurred in 1989 in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. An oil tanker, called Exxon Valdez, hit a reef that tore open the hull and allowed 11 million gallons of crude oil to spill into the water. The leak killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 otters and 300 harbor seals. You can still find oil under beaches near the location of the accident.

  1. London Smog

Smog is a common occurrence in cities around the world, but in 1952 in London, it reached unheard-of levels of severity. For five days, a heavy fog merged with sulfurous fumes from coal fires, power plants and vehicle exhaust.

The incident killed around 12,000 people, hospitalized 150,000 and killed thousands of animals. To this day, it remains one of the largest air pollution events in history. It led to the eventual creation of the UK’s Clean Air Act of 1956, which limited the use of coal in cities.

  1. The Bhopal Disaster

Industry makes our modern life possible, but also comes with environmental risks. In 1984 in Bhopal, India, the worst industrial disaster of all time killed approximately 25,000 people.

On Dec. 2, a chemical plant began leaking a deadly gas known as methyl isocyanate (MIC). Safety systems were not functioning properly, so 27 tons of the gas spread throughout the city.

Many thousands of people died within the next few days of respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and other health problems. The disaster also killed many animals and plants in the area and contaminated the groundwater. Toxic elements still remain at the site today due to improper cleanup.

These environmental disasters had a devastating impact on their local environments, animals and people, and may have also contributed to global issues. As we move forward, we must strive to learn more about our natural world and do our best to protect it.