A whale shark swims beside a plastic bag in the Gulf of Aden near Yemen. Although whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea, they're still threatened by ingesting small bits of plastic.
Whales surfacing with discarded trash bags bursting from their stomachs. Birds building homes out of broken glass and plastic pieces. An old shopping bag found thousands of feet below the ocean's surface in the world’s deepest trench.
Plastic is a material we depend on for livelihoods and convenience. But for all intents and purposes, our planet, our wildlife, and ourselves are suffocating in it. (Related: eight fast facts about plastic pollution, illustrated.)
Hundreds of millions of pounds in plastic are discarded each year. That debris works its way up the food chain from microscopic bugs to the most iconic animals like whales, which along with many types of fish eat plastic thinking it’s food. Other creatures, like crabs and birds, will use plastic to construct homes, since the material so readily available. And animals such as seals and turtles frequently become entangled in discarded plastic “ghost nets.” (Related: how some communities are turning ghost nets into carpets.)
“Any [plastic] loop that goes into the ocean is seriously bad news for them,” veterinarian pathologist Andrew Brownlow told National Geographic last month after necropsying a malnourished seal and finding plastic in its stomach.
This plastic pollution ends up hurting ourselves. Tiny pieces of it, such as microplastics in the form of microbeads and resin pellets, are consumed by animals that we eat in our regular diets. Studies have shown that some oysters and mussels have trace amounts plastic.
Although plastic seems to be an inescapable facet of our everyday lives, it’s relatively easy to reduce this pollution. Some people have gone to the extreme to make their lives virtually plastic-free, but other measures are more immediately achievable. (Related: ice cream cones, homemade treats, and other ways to be an environmentally friendly family.)
For starters, giving up plastic bags, straws, and bottles are some simple steps you can take to reduce your plastic waste. Buying in bulk and avoiding items packaged in plastic also helps, since about 40 percent of non-fiber plastics are created from single-use packaging. Recycling when possible and not littering also cut down on plastic pollution.