The worst kind of junk food

The worst kind of junk food

After spending most of my life living in coastal towns and devoting much of my professional career to the study of marine birds, I have always felt a strong attachment to the ocean.   So naturally, I was thrilled to hear that this week is SeaWeek!  There are events being held all over the country.  I am especially excited about Saturday’s Seven Mysteries of the Sea Variety Show (find details here).

Thin-billed Prion. Image © Nigel Voaden (copied from NZBirdsOnline)
Thin-billed Prion. Image © Nigel Voaden (copied from NZBirdsOnline)

Unfortunately I feel like my fervour for SeaWeek has been marred by my research.  If you have read any of my previous blogs, you are aware that one of the projects I work on is examining carcasses of prions that washed ashore during a storm in 2011 (ScienceLive: Whalebirds- Mystery of the storm riders).  Prions are small bluey-grey seabirds common throughout the Southern Oceans.  As part of this project I have been examining how much plastic, yes plastic, is in their stomachs.  This week I have been looking at Antarctic and Thin-billed Prions.  I found that 75%  had plastic in their bellies!  One little guy had so much that his stomach was literally bulging with it.  I know as a scientist I am supposed to be emotionally detached from my research but I have to admit I found this really depressing.

All in a day’s work. A) cutting into a stomach that is full of plastic. B-D) Stomach contents of three immature prions. The arrow shows a piece that was so large it was wedged into the bird’s stomach.
All in a day’s work. A) cutting into a stomach that is full of plastic. B-D) Stomach contents of three immature prions. The arrow shows a piece that was so large it was wedged into the bird’s stomach.

You might be wondering how does a little bird who spends its life out on the open ocean end up with human garbage in its stomach??  It starts with us.  Improperly disposed of plastic enters the marine environment through run-off from urban centres, beach litter, and by ships dumping their refuse at sea.  Once it hits open waters it gets caught up in currents and can end up far from land, often in the same areas where seabirds feed.  The birds mistake small floating pieces of plastic for food and eat them and due to the morphology of their stomach and the rigidity of the plastic the bird cannot pass much of the plastic so it accumulates.  Ingested plastic can be harmful in many ways- it can block and/or puncture the birds’ internal organs, release persistent organic pollutants, or simply fill the stomach so that the bird does not feed normally.

I don’t want to be all gloom and doom.  There are many ways that you can help reduce how much plastic gets dumped into our oceans.  Below are just a handful things that I try to do but I am sure you are creative enough to come up with some of your own!

Reduce!  The best way to protect the environment from plastic pollution is to limit your plastic consumption.

  •  Shop smarter!  Selectively choose products that have little to no plastic packaging and say no when offered plastic shopping bags at the till.

  •  Many beauty products, such as exfoliating body wash and facial scrubs, are made with plastic microbeads.  These beads make their way to the ocean and can be harmful to wildlife.  Avoid purchasing products that contain plastic microbeads (the ingredients will include “polyethylene” or “polypropylene”).

  •  Every time you go to buy something plastic, contemplate whether you really do need it.  Some times you do, but often you don’t.  This won’t only help the Planet, it will also help your pocketbook!

  •  Say no to balloons!  Although they aren’t plastic, they are very durable and often make it into our oceans where they may be eaten by marine animals.

Reuse!  Plastic inevitably makes it into your life.  However, the reason it is so popular is that it is durable, which means you can use even “disposable” items again and again.

  •  Bring your own containers next time you go for take-away or to the deli.  Also bring your own cutlery if you are going to eat it away from home.

  •  Instead of buying water containers for your home emergency kit, clean your juice bottles and fill them with water.

  •  During the next rainy Saturday start an art project with your kids using only recycled goods.  It is a great way to get the creative juices flowing and educate your kids about plastics.  There are some great craft ideas online!

Recycle! Once your plastic item has out lived its usefulness make sure it ends up at a recycling depot rather than at the tip.

  •  Ensure that all household recyclable plastic makes it to the recycling bin.  Give food containers a quick rinse, otherwise they get removed during sorting and put into the garbage.  Your municipal government’s webpage will have information on what is recyclable in your area.

  •  No recycling at work?  Bring your plastic home for recycling (including the lids from your take-away coffee), or better yet, talk to management about starting a recycling program.

  •  When out for a walk pick up the odd piece of garbage and recycle it.  If everyone in Wellington picked up just one 500ml plastic bottle per month for a year, 66,700kg of plastic would be prevented from entering the environment!

Lastly, as part of SeaWeek, there are numerous beach clean-ups planned throughout the country-  let’s get out there and clean-up our coastline!  The NZ Herald has also created a list of other ways to celebrate our oceans throughout the year (view article here)

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Shelley Jefferies, Lizzy Crotty, and Janet Ayres with this project.


  1. Hi I’m in Canada and the push from government has been pretty good over the years, now we pretty much recycle everything everywhere.

  2. You can turn your plastic milk bottles into bird feeders and I created a way of pouring wild bird seed into the bird feeders using the top as a funnel out of a plastic milk bottle.

    I purchased a bird feeder and it nearly killed a poor sparrow would couldn’t move. Fortunately it was released unharmed but won’t buy another like that again. Plastic milk bottles as bird feeders are safer to use.

    You can use plastic milk bottles for all sorts of things.

    1. Author

      Hi Pamela,

      You can make some really dandy feeders using milk bottles! You just have to make sure they are super clean so they don’t harbour any bacteria that might be harmful to the birds.


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