Humans must flock to save plastic-contaminated seabirds from pollution

24 April 2023 by Liam Goldsworthy
blog author

​Recent news highlighting a bird species struck down by the first classified plastic contamination disease is another reason to collectively work harder and faster to fight against pollution.

Plasticosis, believed to be the first illness of its kind, is currently affecting the flesh-footed Shearwater, a seabird living on an island off the coast of Australia. It affects the species by scarring its digestive tract, caused by plastic eaten during food searches.

Despite living on Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, with a population of just over 400 people, the Shearwater is now known to be one of the most plastic-contaminated birds in the world.

While this issue may seem hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the birds we are more familiar with, experts believe the problem could become more widespread as plastic pollution continues to take hold of the planet. It is estimated that 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic waste by 2050 and nearly half of the world's seabird species are already in decline.

The study of the bird colony has been a work in progress for the past 15 years, conducted by the Natural History Museum. The Museum has a team of 350 scientists looking for solutions to the planetary crisis from biodiversity loss to the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

Uncovering the disease

Scientists involved in the research examined the first part of the Shearwater’s stomach (the proventriculus organ) and the levels of ingested plastic. While proventriculus scarring was widespread, the scientists discovered the birds that had eaten more plastic had higher levels of scarring, which led to the identification of the new disease.

Plasticosis is caused by pieces of plastic inflaming the digestive tract, causing it to become scarred over time. Issues arising from this include digestion, growth and survival hazards. Experts believe the Shearwater colony is inadvertently fed the plastic pollution by their parents bringing them food.

Eventually, the disease could cause a breakdown of tubular glands in the proventriculus which would expose the birds to infection, parasites and affect their ability to digest food and absorb the vitamins they rely on.
Dr Alex Bond, co-author of the study and Principal Curator and Curator in Charge of Birds at the Natural History Museum, said: “While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they're not doing well on the inside.

“This study is the first time that stomach tissue has been investigated in this way and shows that plastic consumption can cause serious damage to these birds' digestive system.”

Working to protect wildlife in the ocean

Liam Goldsworthy, Head of Consumer Goods & Retail – Sustainable Business at Acre UK, said: “Whilst in recent years it has been well documented that plastic waste ingested by birds and other wildlife can have an adverse impact on the health of these species, particularly in the ground-breaking ‘A Plastic Ocean’ documentary, the Natural History Museum study is the first of its kind to identify and name a disease associated with this.

“There are many fantastic charities, innovators and social enterprises that are working to address plastic pollution throughout the value chain during Ocean Decade. One of which is Ocean Generation, Acre’s charity partner, which seeks to activate youth globally through science and storytelling to create a movement of change, raising awareness of our impacts on the Ocean, its importance, and how current and the next generation can address these issues”.

Ocean Generation

Ocean Generation are experts in ocean plastic pollution, having launched numerous education programmes to highlight the issues and prevent plastic from reaching the ocean within a generation.

Jo Ruxton, marine conservationist and founder of the organisation (formerly Plastic Oceans UK) produced the inspirational, award-winning documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’, which was hailed by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the most important films of our time”.

Speaking about the Shearwater birds, Jo told Acre: “The studies that have been carried out on seabirds really are just the tip of the iceberg when we consider the extent of the damage plastic has wreaked on the health of our ocean, the wildlife it supports and even our own health.

“I have witnessed plastic being removed from living animals but sadly witnessed more of the incidences where it has caused death. In those cases, the internal damage has been clear, the lesions on the stomach and gut linings are obvious but we cannot see what is happening at a cellular level with the naked eye. We know plastic breaks up beyond microplastics, nano plastics have been found in our lungs and in our blood - the more scientists reveal, the more our long-standing concerns are proven.

“What can we do? We can’t filter it all out but – we can stop it getting worse. Prevent it from happening in the future. Life in the ocean carries on, and that is where the hope lies. We know all about the mistakes we’ve made assuming plastic is ‘disposable’, we know what we must do now to stop it reaching the environment, we know the stupidity of some of those single-use items we threw away time and time again, so let’s simply stop and give the ocean a chance to recover.”

Supporting the charity

Acre recently organised its 2023 Sustainable Drinks event, hosting leaders in sustainability from around the world. This year the event, in its sixth year, was held at the Sky Garden in London where 150 of the industry changemakers gathered to connect around sustainability and visions/solutions for a better future, raising funds for Ocean Generation.

As a purposeful business itself, Acre through its Foundation, B-Corp commitments and internal sustainability initiatives seeks to address its own impacts on our environment and society, whilst seeking to create systemic change by activating people’s potential through the services it provides to clients.

If you would like to understand more about Ocean Generation’s work and help support the charity in its mission, please contact Ocean Generation directly.

If you would like to donate to Ocean Generation, please click here.

Liam Goldsworthy heads up Acre’s consumer goods and retail practice in the UK. Since 2016, he's been partnering on senior sustainability mandates and building teams for companies across consumer goods and retail, with a particular on the fashion and luxury goods industry. Beyond his core role, Liam also leads Acre’s internal sustainability and charitable initiatives through the Acre Foundation; including B-Corp, net-zero, employee engagement and charitable work with aligned social and environmental causes.

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