A red-footed booby on Christmas Island stands amid a pile of discarded plastic. CSIRO

Researchers have marked an alarming rise in birds dining on inedible garbage.

Plastic—it’s what’s for dinner, tragically, if you happen to be a hungry sea bird.

A new study in PNAS estimates nearly 90 percent of all living marine birds have eaten some type of plastic. With concentrations as thick as 580,000 pieces per square kilometer of ocean—and with global plastics manufacturing increasing exponentially—99 percent of seabird species could be ingesting the crud by 2050, say researchers at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and elsewhere.

Though it shouldn’t need to be said, plastic contains no nutritional value. Yet birds today are inhaling more of it than ever before. In the 1960s, plastic was present in the guts of about 5 percent of sea birds; by 2010, it was in 80 percent of them. Here’s more from UC Santa Barbara, which collaborated on the study:

The researchers found that nearly 60 percent of all seabird species, including albatrosses, shearwaters, and penguins, have plastic in their guts. According to co-author Denise Hardesty, who was also a member of the NCEAS working group, seabirds are excellent indicators of ecosystem health. “Finding such widespread estimates of plastic in seabirds is borne out by some of the fieldwork we’ve carried out where I’ve found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird,” she said….

The plethora of plastic comes from bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibers from synthetic clothes that have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers, and waste deposits. Birds mistake the brightly colored items for food or swallow them by accident, causing gut impaction, weight loss, and sometimes death.

According to the study, plastics will have the greatest impact on wildlife that gather in the Southern Ocean in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America. These areas are home to widely diverse species. While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have higher densities of plastic, fewer birds live in these regions so the impact is reduced.

Crucial to reducing the garbage buffet are “improvements in basic waste management,” the scientists say, noting efforts to reduce plastic-pellet pollution in Europe has led to a noticeable drop in northern fulmars eating the stuff.

A dead albatross lies next to its stomach contents, which include plastic bottle caps and a cigarette lighter. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

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