Mankind's Garbage Albatross Is Killing Off The Real Thing

8 years ago

An ancient Filipino proverb translates: "The garbage you throw away will return to you." (Proverbs are creepy, reeking of unwanted truth.) Shot on the Midway Atoll, American photographer Chris Jordan photographed decaying baby Albatross bodies, revealing bits of bright trash - mostly plastic - where digested food should have been; the nesting birds are dying as their parents unknowingly feed them our trash.

The Midway Atoll is just a small spit of sand and coral in the north Pacific and a major home base for the Laysan albatross. Until 1993, the U.S. Navy used it as a military base and runway but the birds have since taken over the overgrown landing strip.

When Jordan traveled there last September, he found an abundance of albatross deaths directly attributed to our disposable society. He documented the sad scenario and insists that no staging took place - this is exactly how he found the birds, in their final tragic positions. It is estimated that thousands of these birds die annually at Midway from starvation, toxicity and choking.

"Around 100 million tons of plastic are produced each year of which about 10 percent ends up in the sea. About 20 percent of this is from ships and platforms, the rest from land."


Instead of bugs and fish, the adult albatross are attracted by brightly-colored bottle caps and cigarette lighters, taken from a nearby trash flotilla known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, naturally formed by ocean currents. This famous trash-strewn area actually consists of two patches: the Western Garbage Patch east of Japan/west of Hawaii, and the Eastern Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California, which is twice the size of Texas. 

Let me repeat that: A floating area of garbage TWICE the size of the Lone Star State

"There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic."

--Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
(Check out Capt. Moore's stirring TED talk here.)

I recall that as a child in Long Beach, California (where Capt. Moore and Algalita are based), we were dutifully trained to cut the plastic rings on soda six-packs, lest they find their way to the ocean and entangle birds or fish. I'm not sure where this came from but the brainwash was complete. I find myself cutting the rings still, though I am now landlocked. Sadly, I'm afraid the problem is far beyond plastic rings now.

While Jordan's disturbing photographs cast new light on the problem, albatross are not the only animals threatened by our disposal lifestyle. Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish - their favorite snack - and choke to death. Thousands of these magnificent creatures die every year.

It actually hurts my head to grasp the idea that while Leatherback turtles have been around for 100 million years, they could be wiped out in the next decade because we need something handy to transport our Fruit Loops the few feet from the store to our car. Each bag takes between 500 and 1,000 years to decompose and cities, like San Francisco, have banned them. (China has banned them as well, saving them $1.6 million tons of oil.

"But the reality of the situation is that people are, for the most part, irresponsible. Just look at the rate that we recycle these plastic products. It's very low. We've been brought up in a world where it's OK to just buy things and throw away what you don't want. Where, exactly, is away? Is it out of sight out of mind? Judging by most people's behavior, I have to say yes. But I think the real point to be made here is that the manufacture, sale and disposal of plastics is in and of itself very destructive to the environment. Millions of barrels of oil per year go into the manufacture of plastic bags alone. Is it worth it to be dependent on foreign oil so we can carry things home from the store?"

--Rick Hart, commenting on the JunkRaft blog

Just because a piece of trash is gone from our sight, does not mean we are done dealing with it. While some brave souls try desperately to make a dent in the problem, we need to rethink what we buy and how we dispose.

Once the birds and fish are gone, we may have to start eating our own trash and that will be a hard reality to swallow....and digest.


John over at A DC Birding Blog offered some drill-down graph charts showing where exactly the birds are getting the plastic:

"Whether this will help scientists prevent albatrosses from ingesting so much plastic remains to be seen. There is such a tremendous amount of plastic floating in the Pacific that there seems to be little hope of removing it. Perhaps someone will find an alternative solution. In the long term, reducing plastic use and plastic waste should cut down on albatross deaths. My hope is that albatrosses will eventually learn to distinguish plastic from food."

The charmingly-named blog, Nag on the Lake, knows this isn't a new problem, just a troubling one:

"I listened to a program about this on CBC yesterday. I've also heard about the enormous amounts of plastic garbage that climbers leave behind on Mt. Everest. Mr. Nag and Nag Jr. recently travelled to a remote area of the Argentinian Andes and saw plastic bags blowing around many hours from civilization. I'm ashamed."


Meanwhile, Urban Wild considers taking matters into their own hands:

"This is a TRAGEDY. So many human beings are thoughtless when it comes to trash. They never think to dispose of it properly. I recently witnessed someone throwing out their fast food bag from a passing car and could not believe my eyes. I felt like following and confronting them about it. I wanted to hand them the bag and say, "How would you like it if someone threw their trash in your house? Because of thoughtless people like you, our wildlife has to live with your shit every day....Perhaps next time I WILL do it."



(Image Credits: Top - Chris Jordan; Middle - Animals Need Kisses; Bottom - SeaCat)


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