The toxic truth of our waste

Words Alia Fawaz

Midway Atoll is a deserted paradise in the Pacific Ocean approximately halfway between California and East Asia, dominated by endless sandy beaches and exotic wildlife. However, this idyllic remote island, which was once a strategic American air base during World War II, has become a graveyard for its indigenous birds. Today, it is not the dangerous weapons of war that the albatross population should fear but the plastic waste and debris that constantly washes up here, impacting the birds’ diet and health.

Most of our plastic ends up at sea, and a huge chunk of it finds its way into the waters of the Pacific – be it parts of a fishnet, a headless plastic baby doll, a cigarette lighter, a foam cup, a bottle cap, a golf ball or maybe a torn swimming cap seen bobbing on the surface of the water. Almost everything that we throw away can be found in the ocean. Most of it isn’t even visible to us, as much of the pollution is far out at sea or on a microscopic level (an estimated 11 million tons – and growing – mass of floating plastic is swept in the currents of a massive swirling vortex in the Pacific Ocean, known as the North Pacific Gyre, or what many call “the largest landfill in the world”).

A fine example:
New Delhi’s disposable plastic ban
India’s capital city, New Delhi, has recently introduced a ban on disposable plastic, including cutlery, bags, cups, and other forms of single-use plastic items. According to the Times of India, the country is responsible for 60 percent of the plastic that is dumped in the world’s oceans every year. It is reported that New Delhi’s pollution is 36 times more toxic than London’s, mainly because of the illegal mass burning of plastic. India’s plastic crisis has already led to innovations, such as reusable tea cups, edible cutlery, and even edible plastic bags. Let’s hope more cities around the world will follow New Delhi’s lead.

Eating plastic inadvertently
To us these discarded items found in the water are simply garbage, epitomizing our careless and dangerous throwaway culture. For the albatross population however, these colorful fragments of plastic have a whole different meaning. Unfortunately, plastic appears to be a favorite of the albatross, along with flying fish eggs, as they spend much time at sea in search of food. Albatross are more prone to eating plastic because they fish by skimming their beaks across the top of the water, and inadvertently take in plastics floating on the surface mistaken for food. The plastic is often then regurgitated by the parent and fed to its chicks.
Ninety-eight percent of albatrosses on Midway have plastic in them, and forty percent of all albatross chicks die each year as a result of plastic ingestion. The actual causes are usually choking, dehydration, or starvation as the plastic leaves little room for water or food. Sharp-edged plastic parts can easily kill the birds by punching holes in internal organs.
A study of Laysan albatross chicks on Midway Atoll showed large amounts of ingested plastic in naturally dead chicks compared to healthy chicks killed in accidents. While it is not the direct cause of death, the plastic causes physiological stress and causes the chick to feel full during feedings, reducing its food intake and the chances of survival.
The rate of plastic in sea birds is growing steadily as global production of plastics increases. Plastic disposal in our waters must be curbed. If it is not, the albatross and other seabirds will eventually disappear, just like many other species that humans have already driven to extinction.

Glorious birds
The Albatrosses are incredible birds, and seeing them in flight is truly spectacular. They have the longest wingspan of any bird – up to 3.5 meters – and are able to soar vast distances without even flapping their wings. These large birds live up to 50 years, flying at least six million kilometers during their lifetime. There are around two-dozen species of the wandering albatross that have been recorded. They are rarely seen on land and gather only to breed, at which time they form large colonies on remote islands. Mating pairs produce a single egg and take turns caring for it.


Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.
À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.
Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!
Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.
— Charles Baudelaire

The Albatross

Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep, briny sea.
Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.
That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!
One man worries his beak with a stubby clay pipe;
Another limps, mimics the cripple who once flew!
The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.
— Charles Baudelaire
translated from the French by William Aggeler,
The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)