Banning the release of balloons outdoors is another small step to making a difference to our oceans, and New Zealand should consider doing the same, writes Ariel-Micaiah Heswall

Plastic pollution is a huge threat to marine life worldwide. Every step we can make to reduce our usage, no matter how small, will eventually have an effect, and as we help reduce the plastics littering our oceans we will help reduce the suffering of many species of animals and seabirds.

It is for this reason the news from Australia that Victoria is the latest state to ban the release of balloons outside is so welcome. Queensland banned the practice 10 years ago and Western Australia more recently. So, like New Zealand banning grocery plastic bags from supermarkets, making it illegal to release balloons outdoors is another small step to making a difference to our oceans and New Zealand should consider doing the same.

During my research as a seabird sensory ecologist, I recently performed a dissection on a dead seabird at the Auckland Museum, a Buller’s shearwater, killed from striking a cruise ship after being disorientated by the lights. I was shocked and dismayed at what I found. There was not one but multiple pieces of plastic in its stomach. I was equally dismayed when I heard the news reported from Department of Conservation about the albatross chick that had vomited up a plastic toy in its nest.

It is frightening to know that this scenario happens regularly to seabirds and other animals up and down the coast of New Zealand and all over the world.

More than 240 species of animals are known to ingest plastic around the world, animals ranging from small filter feeding mussels to giant sperm whales. Seabirds, seals, and turtles consume the plastic as it mimics the smells and appearance of their prey. Albatrosses often feed it to their young thinking they are providing them with nutrition. Gannets and cormorants use plastics such as string and cling wrap as nesting material.

Human population growth and the increase in industrialisation has led to greater plastic production with most eventually polluting our environment. More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year and more than eight million tons of that yearly total ends up in the oceans. The devastation it is causing is well recorded. For example, there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific consisting of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, formed from the Western Pacific Garbage patch off the coast of Japan and the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California, held together by the oceanic currents of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

Plastics causing this environmental disaster come in a variety of shapes, sizes and compositions. Microplastics, often found in microbeads in cosmetics, tend to be smaller than five millimetres while macro plastics are much larger. Polyvinyl chloride is used to make resins which can be formed into stronger, malleable or rigid plastics, usually found in toys or shower curtains. Low density polyethylene is used to make thinner, softer plastic such as that used to make plastic bags and wraps.

All these different types of plastics lead to different kinds of negative consequences. Smaller microplastics can impact on an animal’s physiology and hormonal system as they leach into the blood stream. For example, a mussel’s growth and development can be altered due to DNA mutations from microplastics.

Hard plastics, such as debris from plastic containers and bottle caps, when ingested can have long-term consequences. These can lead to fatal punctures and blockages in the stomach, causing the animal to starve. This was observed on Midway Atoll in the remote Pacific Islands where a Laysan Albatross chick died from being internally punctured by a gut full of plastic. Another example is from 1982 when a small white-faced storm petrel found in the Chatham Islands, 800 kilometres east of New Zealand’s South Island, was found with nothing but plastic in its gut. 

Entanglement from plastics is also a serious issue found among turtles, seals, and seabirds such as puffins and gulls leading to amputations of limbs and strangulations. Often the younger, curious, and less experienced juveniles are more likely to ingest or become entangled in the plastic. This was found among seal pups in California in which the pup had a plastic netting wrapped around it.

I could fill pages and pages with heart-breaking stories of marine life suffering and plastics would still continue to litter our oceans. The problem is huge – we know that – and it’s easy to think actions like banning balloons and bags are too small to matter. But they do matter, and they make a difference.

When I was in Year 8 attending the International School of Brunei in Brunei Darussalam, I was told a fictional story about a massive forest fire. All the larger animals of the forest were scared, not doing anything to stop the fire. However, a small hummingbird would fly down to the river and take up water and drop it on the fire, constantly repeating this action. The larger animals told him there was no point, the fire was too strong. But the hummingbird continued to pour little drops of water on the fire knowing that he had to try, because doing a little bit of something is better than doing a whole lot of nothing.

So, be like the hummingbird in the story, reduce your plastic usage and you can help reduce the threat to the oceans and the suffering of so many of our marine animals and seabirds.  

Ariel-Micaiah Heswall is a doctoral candidate studying seabird sensory ecology in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.

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