You don’t forget the images: the olive ridley sea turtle, a plastic straw lodged in his nose. The Rubenesque sea lion, neck cinched tight by a thick plastic packing strap. The Cuvier’s beaked whale, stomach split open to reveal more than 80 pounds of plastic waste—snack bags, rope, rice sacks—compacted into a dense mass.

The cause of these tragedies? Single-use plastics, items we use once and discard: bottles, straws, beverage cups and lids, stirrers, bags, cutlery, six-pack beverage rings, polystyrene. And not just whole objects, but fragments. Because for each startling image that makes the rounds on social media, there are untold numbers of problems we don’t see, thanks to microplastics: plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in diameter, either made intentionally or caused by larger waste breaking up. 

Hedgehog in grass with plastic wrapped around it's neck
Both marine and terrestrial animals suffer from plastic waste—including soda rings.
Andy Rouse/Avalon
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Alamy Stock Photo

Plastic waste is terrifyingly pervasive. It’s also increasing quickly—we create new plastic at an exponential rate. Researchers analyzing existing data estimate that 90% of all seabirds have ingested plastic, and plastic waste shows up in some of the most remote spots on Earth—including the Mariana Trench, the planet’s deepest point. Researchers now consider marine litter to be “globally ubiquitous.” 

It’s the old cliché, says Sharon Young, HSUS senior strategist for marine issues: When you throw things away, please be aware there’s no such place as “away.” In the sea and on land, animals suffer for our convenience.

Harm comes in two forms: entanglement and ingestion. Entanglement is easier to spot. “Plastic packaging bands often get caught around pinnipeds, like seals and sea lions,” says Kathryn Kullberg, HSUS director of marine and wildlife protection. Helium balloons—often released en masse during a celebration or remembrance—are particularly treacherous. A balloon’s plastic ribbon snags on a tree; a bird gets tangled, struggles to break free and is injured. If she can’t get free? “Easy prey,” says Kullberg. And balloons travel far: While working on whale-watching boats off the Massachusetts coast, “we would find balloons sometimes 15 miles out to sea with campaign slogans on them from somebody in Pennsylvania,” Young says.

Did you know?
Humans create plastic at an exponential rate. The amount doubles every 11 years.

Balloons can get ingested, too, along with other plastic bits resembling a natural meal to many species. “Often plastic will be colorful, so a bird may pick it up thinking it’s something else and they feed it to their young, and then the birds starve to death,” says Kullberg. An environmental scientist recently observed a great blue heron trying to swallow what looked a small shark on a Florida beach. Eventually, the heron flew off, leaving her “prey” behind: a small plastic shark toy. Even corals—eyeless marine invertebrates—are fooled. In one study, corals preferred microplastics to other bite-size offerings. (Scientists speculate that the plastics’ scent appealed to them.)

Even relatively small meals of plastic can be problematic, building up to obstruct the gut or simulate fullness without any nutrients. And because plastic can concentrate some chemical pollutants, ingestion could also be providing a new way for these compounds to enter animals’ bodies. Researchers aren’t yet sure about the long-term effects of these buildups but suspect they cause “undesirable biological effects” on animals’ physiological processes. 

Fish swimming in the wild with a red rubberband around it's body
Stocktrek Images, Inc
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Alamy Stock Photo

The problem is widespread and serious and depressing, and there’s no single, easy answer. Recycling alone won’t work; plastic tends to degrade during the process to a point where it can no longer be recycled further. Bans on plastic shopping bags, charges or opt-in policies (where consumers must request single-use items) do reduce usage where they’re implemented but may have unintended consequences: One economist determined that purchases of plastic trash bags increased dramatically after a ban on plastic shopping bags passed in California. Even so-called biodegradable or compostable plastic isn’t a perfect solution. One study showed that after three years, samples did not decompose as promised by the manufacturers. 

Illustration of sea turtle with plastic inside

One study found that 84% of the microplastics found in 410 stranded animals’ guts were fibers.

Illustration of a garbage truck filled with plastic

One garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute.

Illustration of three birds

By 2050, plastic will be found in the digestive tracts of 99% of all seabird species (and 95% of the individuals within those species).

But there’s hope: In study after study, researchers note that reductions in exposure to plastic waste will reduce harm. In other words, if we stop putting garbage in our oceans and rivers and on our coastlines, animals will stop eating it and getting tangled in it and dying from it. 

Solving the single-use plastics problem requires individuals, corporations and governments working together, cultivating what one writer for Anthropocene—a magazine focusing on environmental challenges and solutions—calls “an ethic of care.” We need to make better choices as consumers, and we must pressure corporations to design better products. We need our federal, state and local governments to invest in waste-management programs and public education campaigns. We’ve done it before to address other huge problems. “People complain about cars being more expensive because you now need to have catalytic converters on them to clean the air,” says Young, “but now the air’s cleaner.” Hybrid and electric cars are gaining in popularity, and we know that public transportation cuts down on carbon emissions.

By making small changes in our own lives, by voting with our dollars and using our voices, we can create a more mindful society. By shifting our habits, we can form a new mindset—one that prizes sustainability over convenience, one that harnesses our creativity to find new solutions and alternatives. There is no “away.” We’ve got to keep here clean.

illustration of floating plastic bottles

Here's how to start

At Home:

Take stock of the single-use plastics you rely on—then replace them with more sustainable options. If it’s overwhelming, start with one room at a time.

  • Switch to reusable bottles for water and tumblers for your coffee. (Some cafés will give you a discount for using one!)
  • Use products like the Guppyfriend or Cora Ball when doing laundry to catch the tiny, non-biodegradable fibers that come loose from polyester clothing during the washing cycle, preventing them from entering waterways. 
  • Opt for bars of (cruelty-free!) shampoo, conditioner and soap rather than liquids packaged in plastic. 
  • Stash stainless steel straws and a set of bamboo or metal cutlery in your car or bag to avoid plastic versions while on the go.

  • Look for alternatives to plastic shopping bags (canvas or string), produce bags (cotton or nylon) and sandwich bags (silicone or nylon-lined fabric).

IN THE WORKPLACE:

As you reduce single-use plastics in your household, politely ask for change at the places you spend (and earn!) your money.

  • Ask your office manager to replace plastic coffee stirrers with wooden ones in break rooms and switch from plastic cutlery, cups and plates to reusable tableware that employees share and wash themselves.
  • Write to your local supermarket and favorite brands, encouraging them to seek alternatives to plastic packaging. Include specific examples, such as phasing out veggies wrapped in plastic. 
  • Request that restaurants and bars provide straws only on request.

IN THE community:

Spread the word and get your neighbors involved. Legislation is a powerful way to encourage change, so start talking to your state and local lawmakers!

  • Suggest wildlife-friendly alternatives to balloon releases: Plant a tree, fly kites or hang bunting instead. (Get more ideas at balloonsblow.org.)
  • Tell your lawmakers you support bans on single-use plastics, such as Styrofoam packaging, plastic bags and more. Find your legislators
  • Organize a beach/river cleanup or a hike where you pick up trash—not only does this get plastic off the ground, but it exposes people to the problem. Weigh and count the trash you collect, then write a letter to the editor sharing the numbers.

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This story originally appeared in our award-winning magazine for members, All Animals. Get informative and inspiring content like this delivered right to your door.

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