Early in my career as a science educator, I learned a story that a lot of educators hear at some point: “the starfish* story.” Basically, an older person is walking along a beach and tossing starfish back into the ocean. A younger person comes along, looks at the hundreds of starfish caught on the beach, and says to the older person, “There are so many on the beach and the sun is hot. There’s no way you’ll get them all back into the ocean in time. What difference does it make?”
Then the older person tosses another starfish into the water and says, “It made a difference to that one.”
Like the beach littered with starfish, it seems like the problem with plastic in our world is insurmountable. How do we make a difference?
Plastic waste is found in the deepest parts of our oceans and the most remote area of land. The production of it contributes to climate change. Most people know this. The good news is that if we know the problem, we know the solution--use less plastic. This knowledge has inspired huge low-waste and plastic-free movements, and a growing expectation among citizens for a reduction in plastic among corporations. Every time we support a zero-waste business or call our senators, we are making a change together! And that change can make a huge difference for human health as well as animal health, from the sky to the land to the sea.
Let’s take a closer look at what reducing our plastic waste could do for some of the most affected animals: seabirds and fishes.
Over the past few decades, seabirds, such as gulls, pelicans, and herons, have become poster children for the effects of plastic pollution. As a kid growing up in the 90’s, I learned to cut the plastic rings from soda cans so birds don’t get tangled up in them. Unfortunately, birds today still can’t seem to get away from it. Despite being intelligent problem solvers, the natural behavior of birds lends itself to the problem.
Seabirds are well adapted to eating foods with hard outer shells or exoskeletons, such as crabs, clams, or snails. These animals can also exhibit some bright colors or distinct patterns, which means they aren’t necessarily turned off by the “unnatural” looking colors or textures of plastic pieces. Plastic in the water can also become covered with fish or amphibian eggs, and when a bird is simply skimming the top of the water, it doesn’t take the time to differentiate between the edible and non-edible parts. Birds also lack teeth and do not chew their food. Instead, it goes into their muscular crop where it is mashed up mechanically. Birds that ingest plastic end up feeling “full” without actually obtaining any nutrients. As nest builders, many birds see lightweight plastic such as straws, string, and plastic bags as ideal nesting material. However, because this material doesn’t tear away or break as easily as grasses or twigs if something becomes entangled in it, plastic in nests can be a huge risk for baby birds.
On the bright side, most of the plastic affecting seabirds directly are also types of plastic that should be the easiest to refuse on a day-to-day basis-- single-use plastics. Straws, bottles and caps, bits of Styrofoam, fishing line, balloons, and cigarette butts are some of the most common pieces of trash found near bodies of water and directly affecting seabirds. They are designed to be used once or only a handful of times before being discarded, but they do have multi-use counterparts. Often, these items break down just enough to become unusable, but never truly biodegrade. Reducing or at least appropriately disposing of these single-use plastics would make it so that even the most remote seabirds could live a healthy life.
What happens, though, when these plastics stay in the ocean for too long?
You’ll see charts and graphs that say that it takes plastic 400 years to biodegrade, or 500 years, or 1000 years. The truth is, there is no evidence that plastic biodegrades at all. Instead, it photodegrades over time due to UV radiation from the sun. It breaks down into smaller pieces, but those pieces are still made of plastic. And the smaller the plastic, the harder it is to clean up. Scientists estimate that there are more than 21 trillion metric tons of microplastic in our oceans, and those microplastics often look like food to sea creatures.
But it’s not just the plastic itself that causes problems for sea life.
Because plastic is petroleum-based, it acts like a magnet, attracting and absorbing harmful chemical pollutants in the ocean such as PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls) which are linked to various cancers, weakened immune systems, and reproductive issues in both fish and humans. As animals eat the microplastics, the toxins clinging to the plastics will leach into the animal’s fat and remain there even after the plastic passes through its digestive system.
Scientists have found plastic in the stomachs of animals as large as whales and as small as copepods, shrimp, and jellyfish. The small animals that eat plastic pass those harmful pollutants up the food chain until the larger predators are carrying dangerous levels of PCB’s, DDT, and other persistent compounds. This process, called biomagnification, could lead to major health issues in animals throughout the food chain and even the people who depend on the fish as a food source.
“Macro” plastics continue to be an issue as well.
The Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Center has conducted years of stomach content analysis on sea turtles, dolphins, and whales, and have found plastics in the stomachs of all three. Sea turtles who accidentally eat plastic bags or balloons (which look like jellies) have trouble passing the plastic and will stop eating, thinking that their stomachs are full. When the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team is able to intervene, they can surgically remove balloons and plastic from turtles’ stomachs, rehabilitate them, and then release them back into the ocean. But not every sea turtle that eats plastic washes ashore, so we also need to solve the problem at its root.
As a result of the evidence collected by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Center, the Virginia Aquarium has worked hard with the Virginia Conservation Network to support Virginia’s House Bill 2159 which would ban intentional balloon releases in Virginia and protect sea turtles. Thanks to the efforts of environmental organizations as well as passionate citizens who called their representatives, this bill passed and will soon be signed into law!
We’ve all heard the “just do one thing” narrative when it comes to plastic reduction, and individual solutions are a great start! Choose reusable items made of materials that do not break down, such as stainless steel water bottles, or items that biodegrade if they get into the environment, such as paper straws.
However, those aren’t the only answers. Big problems require big solutions. We have already seen how powerful passionate people can be when they come together over a cause like intentional balloon releases. We can continue to protect birds, fish, and the animals and people who depend on them, by taking community action to reduce our plastic consumption.
Support zero-waste initiatives like Less Than, which make plastic-free items more accessible to the residents of Hampton Roads.
Call/email your state senators and ask them to support HB1902 to ban expanded polystyrene food service containers in Virginia. Find your legislator here: https://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/
Support and participate in local cleanup initiatives through Virginia Zoo and Keep Norfolk Beautiful https://virginiazoo.org/get-involved/volunteer/episodic-volunteers/
Lead a zero-waste initiative within your school, business, or place of worship. Complete an audit and recommend ways to reduce your collective plastic consumption. You could even form a Plastic Free July Eco Challenge team to learn and stay motivated together!
We know what is causing the problem. Now let’s fix it. Individual actions can make a difference for a single bird or fish, and collective action can make a difference for all of us.
*And just because we can’t let it pass: even though it’s widely known as “the starfish story,” starfish are not actually fish at all (they are echinoderms like sea urchins) and should really be called sea stars. No matter what you call them, they still appreciate you making a difference for wildlife!