A crab clutches a cotton swab it found on a beach.

Danger to Animals

Ocean plastic kills millions of marine animals each year. Nearly 700 species have been affected by it. This includes endangered species.

Some are strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six‑pack rings. Sea turtles and toothed whales gulp down plastic bags. They think the plastic is a jellyfish. Birds like albatross have been found dead with stomachs full of plastic garbage.

Microplastics are a danger, too. They are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters (one‑fifth of an inch) long. Animals eat them without knowing it.

A sea turtle sets its sights on a plastic cup.

Seabirds scoop up floating plastic pellets. These can resemble fish eggs. Parent birds then spit up the plastic to feed their young. But plastic doesn’t provide nutrients. It kills the animals.

In crabs, microplastics remain in the gut six times longer than food does. When a predator like a bird eats a marine worm, the bird gets a less nutritious meal. It also gets the plastic that worm has eaten. That’s how plastic passes up the food chain.

Even hyenas encounter plastic as they scavenge a landfill in Ethiopia, a country in Africa.

Looking for the Source

To keep plastic out of our oceans, we need to know how it’s getting there. Today, we produce more plastic than we can dispose of. “This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is”, says Ted Siegler, a resource economist. He should know. He’s spent the last 25 years studying garbage.

“The reality is, we just need to collect the trash. Most countries that I work in, you can’t even get it off the street.” More garbage trucks and a better system would help.

Siegler suggests two other ways to tackle the problem. First, design new plastics and new plastic products. They must be biodegradable or more recyclable, however.

Second, help countries that need better waste removal systems. Siegler suggests a tax. Companies would pay a penny on every pound of plastic they manufactured. The tax would raise roughly six billion dollars a year. That money could be used to manage garbage collection in developing nations.