Birds digest plastic faster than believed

Apr 18, 2011 by Roelof Kleis

Seabirds appear to process plastic faster than scientists hitherto believed.

This is bad news, as it means they ingest large amounts of . The birds also transport plastic around the world. These conclusions have emerged from the work of IMARES, part of Wageningen UR, researcher Jan Andries van Franeker, who surprised delegates at a conference on in Hawaii with his findings last week. 'Up to now the attitude has always been: it will take years before that plastic passes through the birds' stomachs. But that turns out not to be true.'

A fulmar breaks down at least three quarters of the plastic in its stomach every month, says Van Franeker. He deduced this from his own research in Antarctica, where fulmars arrive at the end of the winter with polluted stomachs. Antarctica is clean, so they do not ingest any more rubbish there. And that makes it possible to establish how quickly the plastic is broken down. Other researchers have found comparable breakdown rates in the North Pole, says Van Franeker. Birds break down plastic in their stomachs into smaller pieces, which they then excrete. But the toxic substances remain behind in their intestines. So a fast processing rate causes a higher intake of toxins for the birds, according to Van Franeker.

A side-effect of this digestion rate is that birds contribute to the spreading of plastic waste. Van Franeker has calculated the implications for the two million fulmars on the North Sea. In the average fulmar's stomach there are 35 pieces of plastic weighing a total of 0.31 grams. According to Van Franeker, the birds process six tons of plastic per year between them. What that means for the global scale is not known. There are too many on which there is no data. 'But it could be a considerable amount, depending where you are.' To make matters worse, the processed is brought to places that were previously clean. Van Franeker: 'If you are talking about that fly to Antarctica after wintering elsewhere, they are bringing in a few tons of micro-plastic that wasn't there before.'

Explore further: Could squirmy livestock dent Africa's protein deficit?

Provided by Wageningen University

5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New lure may replace soft plastic ones

Feb 25, 2008

A fishing aficionado from Waunakee, Wis., has created a new "Iron-Clad" fishing lure he hopes will replace problematic soft plastic lures.

Fiercest birds make the best home decorators

Jan 20, 2011

You might raise your eyebrows at their choice of material, but you wouldn't want to pick a fight with a black kite whose nest is adorned in white plastic, Spanish researchers said Thursday.

Trashing the ocean

Jun 29, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- UC Irvine professor William Cooper follows the trail of plastic debris that's spreading from the coast to the deep sea.

Recommended for you

Forest tree seeds stored in the Svalbard seed vault

16 hours ago

A new method for the conservation of the genetic diversity of forest trees will see its launch on 26 February 2015, as forest tree seeds are for the first time stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Spitsbergen Island, ...

Baby sea turtles starved of oxygen by beach microbes

16 hours ago

On a small stretch of beach at Ostional in Costa Rica, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles nest simultaneously in events known as arribadas. Because there are so many eggs in the sand, nesting females freque ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.