Reports of whales, dolphins and porpoise species with blockages or serious damage to their gastro-intestinal tract due to mistakenly eating plastics have become common in the last couple of years. Over 56% of all cetacean species, from small fish-eating dolphins to the largest filter feeding whales, have been recorded eating marine plastics they’ve mistaken for food (1).
Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t be surprised by the most recent death of a Cuvier’s beaked whale.
Marine biologists found the dead whale full of plastic (over 40 kilograms of it) after it washed up on the shore of Mindanao Island in the Philippines. The body of the whale was recovered by workers at D’Bone Collector Museum in Davao City before the discovery was made that the whale was full of plastic.
Dead Whale Full of Plastic
Darrel Blatchley, director of the D’Bone Collector Museum personally conducted the necropsy (an autopsy for animals) on the beached whale. In a Facebook post, the horrified biologists said it was “the most plastic we have ever seen in a whale,” as they pulled out a shocking 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of plastic from the whale’s stomach.
They removed “40 kilos of plastic, including 16 rice sacks, 4 banana plantation style bags and multiple shopping bags.” The accompanying photos in the Facebook post are graphic, with armfuls of bloody decomposing bags being removed from the stomach. ‘It’s disgusting,” they added. “Action must be taken by the government against those who continue to treat the waterways and ocean as dumpsters.”
Blatchley noted that there were so many plastic bags in the animal’s stomach, that some had begun to calcify. He told CNN that the juvenile whale was “vomiting blood before it died” as a result of severe emaciation and dehydration. He added that cetaceans don’t drink water from the ocean, but instead obtain their water from the food they eat. Due to the amount of plastic the whale ingested, the whale was no longer ale to consume large amounts of food, hence why he got so dehydrated and eventually starved to death.
Blatchley told the Guardian that in the 10 years they have examined dead whales and dolphins, 57 of them were found to have died due to accumulated rubbish and plastic in their stomachs.
Not The Only Whale
This story comes on the heels of other similar accounts of whales washing up with plastic in their stomachs.
In June of last year, a whale died in southern Thailand after swallowing more than 80 plastic bags, which weighed up to eighteen pounds in the animal’s stomach.
Another whale washed up on a beach in Spain last April, found with over 64 pounds of plastic and other waste in its stomach.
In 2016, fishing gear and an engine cover from a car were found inside the stomachs of sperm whales that beached themselves on Germany’s North Sea coast. The garbage included a 43-foot-long shrimp fishing net, a plastic engine car cover, and the remains of a plastic bucket.
A dead sperm whale washed ashore in eastern Indonesia late 2018 with over 13 pounds of plastic in its stomach. The whale had swallowed over 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops, and a bag containing more than 1,000 pieces of string.
Peter Kemple Hardy, a campaigner at World Animal Protection – an animal welfare charity – told CNN that “hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, seals and turtles are killed by ocean plastic pollution every year, including single-use plastics and abandoned plastic gear from the fishing industry.”
That’s not the only source of plastic pollution in our oceans. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we use and use and use without ever thinking where that waste goes. If we each had to keep our own waste in our backyards, would we strive our best to live a zero-waste lifestyle? I think the answer would be yes.
How to Solve the Plastic Problem
According to a study published in the journal Science in February of 2015, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines were the world’s top sources of plastic bottles, bags, and other trash clogging up global sea lanes. Given that these countries accept over 50% of the waste that comes from the United States, you can see how the issue isn’t just these countries alone. Especially when the percentage of mis-managed waste is so high. Perhaps the waste in these countries wouldn’t be so mis-managed, if they didn’t have to take care of the waste from wealthier countries?
Studies have found that with wealth, comes more opportunities for consumption. That’s why those who are more wealthy are responsible for a largely disproportionate percentage of “lifestyle consumption emissions.” You can see this clearly demonstrated in the graph below, which comes from the 2015 Oxfam study.
Products created in countries like China to be mass-exported to areas like the United States and Canada also pose the question how much waste is created as a by-product of making said products. How much plastic and other toxic by-products are we creating as a result of buying into products that we so desperately need and want?
Recently, China closed its doors to the world’s recycling waste, and for good reason. Over 45% of the planet’s recycling waste used to be sent to China for processing. As a result, the recycling industry went into mass chaos, since most wealthier countries do not have the proper infrastructure to deal with their own recycling waste. But just because China couldn’t take recyclables from other countries, that didn’t mean places like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam couldn’t take them.
Greenpeace recently conducted an investigation titled ‘Unearthed’, which found a major increase of plastic scrap exports from the U.S. to southeast Asia just around the time China stopped accepting recyclables. To put this into perspective, exports to Thailand increased by nearly 2,000 percent, in Malaysia by 273 percent, and in Vietnam by 46 percent. In fact, Vietnam was so overwhelmed by plastic imports that they had to temporarily ban all recyclables between June and October of 2018. A plastic processing facility in Kuala Lumpur was also forced to shut down due to local complaints of air and water pollution.
Recyclers (like China), who used to pay cities for their waste, are now charging for the service. It’s no wonder, then, why so many cities are choosing to landfill their waste than paying to have it recycled. The ‘Unearthed’ investigation figures that the other 280,000 metric tons of plastic waste in the United States that hasn’t been accounted for is being incinerated or sent to the landfill. Incinerating plastic waste is incredibly toxic, and pollutes the air and water of surrounding areas.
Some places, like Vermont, are charging residents for their waste, either in the form of higher taxes, or charging for their recycling (which makes the most sense, as it makes people more accountable for the products the buy, and how much waste they produce).
If we’re forced to see how much trash we are creating instead of being able to freely send it away to other countries for them to deal with it, perhaps we’d be more conscious of what we choose to buy. What if we had to keep every piece of recycling in our backyards? Would that encourage us to move to a zero-waste lifestyle? It seems that only until we are surrounded by our own plastic-waste problems (instead of blindly hidden by them), that we will start doing something about it.
“The fact that we’ve been able to offshore the majority of our waste processing has caused us as consumers to grow complacent and lazy,” Katherine Martinko, writer at Treehugger, made note.
Seeing as how recycling doesn’t work, we also need to put pressure on manufacturers and stores to stop their plastic addiction and turn to biodegradable forms of plastic like bioplastics made from hemp instead. Fixing the problem at the root is the only way we’re going to see real change.