This albatross full of plastic should change the way you think​ about litter

Decomposing albatross chick with a stomach full of plastic. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Dan Clark

We hear that trash like food wrappers, plastic bottles, straws, and cigarette lighters can pose a problem for birds and marine life, but for many of us “out of sight, out of mind.”

But sometimes it takes a photograph to drive home the damage our litter is causing.


Dan Clark, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, did just that. He captured the image below of a decomposing albatross chick with a stomach full of plastic.

It’s not pretty and it’s not the way we’re used to seeing wildlife, but it’s real and it’s a reflection of us.

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Decomposing albatross chick with a stomach full of plastic. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Dan Clark


How is this happening?

It’s estimated that eight million tons of debris enter the ocean every year.

Every year, runoff, rivers, and storm sewers carry the garbage out to sea and consequently, scientist now believe that nearly every seabird now eats plastic.

The trash is referred to as “Marine Debris” and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy director Jim Kurth testified about it on Capitol Hill in May 2016.

“Marine debris is one of the most pervasive and pernicious global threats to the health of the world’s coastal areas, oceans, and waterways,” Kurth told a Senate subcommittee.

The marine debris enters the Pacific and gets caught in swirling currents known as a gyre. NOAA says gyres can accumulate debris on a very large scale. The debris is eventually deposited on Pacific islands, including the Hawaiian islands and coral reefs.

Trash entering the ocean from Asia and the West Coast of America gets caught up in great swirling currents called gyres. Credit: NOAA

The result is mountains of debris that’s often lethal to wildlife, like the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Hawaiian green sea turtles.

A monk seal caught in netting. Credit: NOAA

Sadly, birds often eat the plastic at sea and they also bring some back to feed to their young. It’s estimated that more than five tons of plastics are carried on to Midway Atoll each year by adult albatross.

The marine debris problem is not isolated to the Pacific. In the Florida Keys refuges, officials struggle to retrieve debris caught in mangrove roots.

“When trash gets in the mangroves, which make up a lot of our shoreline, it’s virtually impossible to clean out,” says Kristie Killam, ranger for four national wildlife refuges in the Florida Keys.

“A lot of [the trash] is plastic,” says Killam. “A lot of it is Styrofoam. All of it’s going to be here for a long time. Key deer, birds and other wildlife wander the shorelines. On a daily basis, they get entangled in the trash and accidentally ingest it too.”

What can we do?

First, we should all be aware of what products are causing the problem and make sure we’re only using what we need and then make sure we dispose of it properly.

The Oceans Conservancy says cigarettes, food wrappers, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bags and caps and lids top the list.

Common Marine Debris. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

NOAA also offers a list of ways citizens can help, such as…

  • Join or lead a cleanup  – Volunteer to pick up marine litter in your local community and help keep our coastlines clear!
  • Recycle – Recycling is not only a way to reduce your impact, but also a great way to prevent marine debris! Learn to do it correctly.

You can see the full NOAA list here.