CSIRO, Britta Denise Hardesty

Our oceans are full of trash, specifically plastic trash, and that is posing a huge problem for the seabirds that rely on the sea for food. A recent study from researchers at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Imperial College London found just how much damage that plastic is doing: According to the authors, about 90% of all seabirds have consumed plastic at some point in their lifetimes. By 2050, that figure is expected to jump to 99%.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, discusses the severity of the plastic situation:

Plastic production is rapidly rising, with a doubling of production every 11 y since commercial production began in the 1950s. This growth in production has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the concentration of plastics in the marine environment… the durability of plastic implies that it is retained for years to centuries, in some cases failing to degrade at all if it is not exposed to bacterial activity or UV radiation.

Overall, write the researchers, "plastic fragments can be found throughout the world's oceans, with observed concentrations up to 580,000 plastic pieces per square kilometer."

The researchers note that when seabirds ingest plastic—which they mistake for food or eat accidentally—they can suffer organ damage from leaking toxins. The plastic can also lead to blockages, and cause weight loss or death; seabird populations have indeed declined by nearly 70% since 1950, according to a separate study. In 1960, only five percent of seabirds were found to have ingested plastic.

Scientists have always known that the enormous amount of trash in the ocean is bad news, but this study has shed light on how the mess affects seabirds, specifically. "For the first time, we have a global prediction of how wide-reaching plastic impacts may be on marine species—and the results are striking," said lead author Chris Wilcox in a statement. Co-author Denise Hardesty added, "I’ve found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird."

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But, she said, it's possible to turn things around. “Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs with less than a decade,' Hardesty said, adding that the change "suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time.” Here's hoping.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.