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Another whale is dead, poisoned by 48 lbs of plastic, and scientists fear there will be many more

Plastic production is outpacing waste management painting a grim future for marine life


Nicole Karlis
April 2, 2019 10:30PM (UTC)

Disposable dishes, shopping bags, fishing nets, a laundry detergent package with its barcode still detectable and a corrugated tube are just a few of the many items that made up the 48 pounds of plastic that killed a sperm whale in the Mediterranean Sea last Thursday. The carcass washed ashore in Porto Cervo, on the Italian island of Sardinia. The young female sperm whale was also carrying a fetus.

"She was pregnant and had almost certainly aborted before she beached," Luca Bittau, president of the SeaMe group, told CNN. "The fetus was in an advanced state of composition."

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If this sounds like a familiar story, it is.

In March, a whale was found dead on a Philippine beach with 88 pounds of plastic in its body. Last November, a dead sperm whale found on Kapota Island, in southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach, which included 25 plastic bags, 115 plastic cups and two flip-flop sandals. Another sperm whale died in Spain after being unable to digest more than 60 pounds of plastic trash in April 2018. The world’s cetaceans are choking and dying on plastic.

More than 8.8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, according to the World Wildlife. Marine animals often ingest plastic waste because they mistake it for food. However, the increase of whales being found dead from this is deeply worrisome to many in the marine wildlife field — especially since there does not appear to be an end in sight.

“The amount of plastic we produce is increasing, and so the amount of plastic that ends up in the environment is increasing, and that is why we are seeing this increase over time, especially when they are in a marine environment and the plastic looks like what a whale might eat, for example like a plastic bag could look like a jellyfish,” Charles Rolsky, Senior Scientific Advisor at  Plastic Oceans International, an international non-profit organization, told Salon.

Since  the 1950s, annual production of plastics has increased by nearly 200-fold. An estimated 80 percent of ocean plastics come from land-based sources, and 20 percent from marine, according to the nonprofit Our World in Data. If this pace continues, one report published in Science Advances estimates by 2050 the world will have produced 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste. Half of that will be dumped in landfills, and the other half in the environment.

Rolsky said the increase poses both physical and chemical threats to marine life.

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“The physical threat with plastic is if it is a large piece of plastic and an animal like a whale has ingested it, but it can’t be metabolized or broken down, so it can make them really sick or build up in their stomach and make them feel full, in that case they won’t keep eating so they will starve to death,” he said.

The chemical part is that when plastics are exposed to a contaminate, they absorb it. In that sense, plastics in the ocean are transporting contaminates from one area to another.

Wellsley Brown, a plastics campaign associate at Oceana, told Salon she is not surprised that more whales and marine life are dying from consuming plastic.

“It makes sense that unfortunately just because more plastic is going into the ocean more whales are eating and dying from it,” she said. “We are living in a single-use plastic society where companies are wrapping so many of their products in single-use plastics, and plastic production has outpaced waste management's ability to keep up.”

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Indeed, bans on plastic items in the U.S. are gaining traction, but not everywhere. Rolsky said it will take a “web of solutions” to mitigate the crisis.

“It is such a big problem it is going to be a web of solutions,” such as single-use plastic bans, a better recycling system around the world, and beach cleanups, to name a few.


Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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