The natural world continues to grapple with the consequences of a human society addicted to plastic, and frequently that news is gruesome. Case in point, on Monday a 31-foot sperm whale washed ashore off Kapoto Island in Wakatobi National Park dead and filled with 13 pounds of plastic and garbage.
What was found in the animal’s stomach reads like a beach-day packing list – 115 plastic cups, a pair of flip-flops, four plastic bottles, and more. “Hard plastic (19 pieces, 140g), plastic bottles (4 pieces, 150g), plastic bags (25 pieces, 260g), flip-flops (2 pieces, 270g), pieces of string (3.26kg) & plastic cups (115 pieces, 750g),” reads a World Wildlife Fund Indonesia tweet.
5,9 kg sampah plastik ditemukan di dlm perut paus malang ini! Sampah plastik yaitu: plastik keras (19 pcs, 140 gr), botol plastik (4 pcs, 150 gr), kantong plastik (25 pcs, 260 gr), sandal jepit (2 pcs, 270 gr), didominasi o/ tali rafia (3,26 kg) & gelas plastik (115 pcs, 750 gr). pic.twitter.com/ZFWZgkbnzu
— WWF-Indonesia (@WWF_ID) November 19, 2018
For now, researchers are unable to determine whether the items the whale ingested, in fact, caused its death.
“Although we have not been able to deduce the cause of death, the facts that we see are truly awful,” Dwi Suprapti, a marine species conservation coordinator at WWF Indonesia told the Associated Press.
Still, it’s clear that ingesting plastic is extremely problematic for giant marine mammals like sperm whales.
“Ingesting plastic can give whales a false sense of satiation, leading them to eat less food that provides the nutrients they need,” Nicholas Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas program at the Ocean Conservancy, told the New York Times. “Consumption of plastics can lead to reduced weight, energy and swimming speed, making whales more vulnerable to predators.”
Instances like these have become rallying cries for researchers and environmentalists who caution how serious of an issue global plastic waste has become. Their concern is that as the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean continues to increase, the frequency with which marine life interact with or ingest it will increase, leading to more of these sorts of catastrophes.
Back in February, a sperm whale washed up in Spain with 64 pounds of plastic in its stomach. And in 2016, 13 sperm whales beached themselves in Germany. Their stomachs were also found full of plastic.
The Ocean Conservancy estimates that some 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean annually – that’s in addition to the already 150 million metric tons in circulation.
But there are glimmers of hope, though. Earlier this year, the European Parliament voted to ban single-use plastics across the European Union by 2021. States and municipalities across the United States are increasingly imposing bans on a number of single-use plastic products, including bags, bottles, bottle caps, and straws. And in Indonesia–one of the top six plastic polluters in the world by country, according to a study in Science journal–efforts are currently underway to reduce plastic waste by 70 percent by 2025.
According to Lukas Adhyakso, the conservation director of the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia, the problem requires everyone around the world to step up. “We will start doing our part, but all the regions should do the same,” he told the New York Times.