That they eat plastic – 07/10/2021 – Reinaldo José Lopes

“I’m mad, I wanted so badly to eat a plastic bag,” read the caption of a meme I once saw, overlaid with a sea turtle cartoon that reminded me a little of the one from the “Finding Nemo” cartoon. Another symptom that online life has a frightening power to dehumanize us is that someone is willing to make fun of the internet when they know sea turtles are choking on the plastic floating in the oceans. Most importantly, the meme shows a downright pathological inability to understand the extent of the problem.

Indeed, ingesting plastic is far from being the mere stupidity of sea turtles. Recently, Brazilian researchers scrutinized the scientific literature on the subject and came up with a terrifying conclusion: at least 1,565 animal species, which are common in all the environments we know of at sea, in rivers and on land, eat these polymers from the oil that we win from the underground. Indeed, this is an underestimate as the problem has only been more intensively studied in marine animals (which equates to 1,288 of the above species).

This uninspiring inventory is contained in an article in the journal Science signed by Robson Santos of the Federal University of Alagoas and Ryan Andrades of the Federal University of Espírito Santo. Together with Gabriel Machovsky-Capuska, who works at Massey University in New Zealand, the Brazilians defend that the global emergency caused by the uptake of plastic in nature can be understood as an evolutionary trap. In other words, it is a situation in which the instincts of the most diverse animals, forged through millions of years of natural selection, were simply not calibrated precisely enough to evade the gastronomic appeal of the plastic avalanche.

Here it becomes clear that the adjective “gastronomic” is only an expressive force. We are talking about hunger and thus survival. What is happening is not that the different shapes, colors, and textures of plastics appear more attractive as food for animals than real food, although in some contexts it can.

Evidently, the growing pollution levels are accompanied by factors such as greater environmental degradation in general, which also includes a lack of suitable food. In these situations, many species risk eating that strange floating thing that vaguely resembles a jellyfish (say) because it is preferable to starvation.

It is also necessary to take into account the habits of each species: the likelihood that the animals are ready to take such a risk increases if they are generalists, and not specialists (that is, they, as a rule, already eat a wide variety of foods), and when they are already devouring carcasses or other waste normally. But not even sharp-eyed hunters who are used to attacking fast prey like hawks can avoid the food jumble caused by plastic. In fact, there are records of the harmful habit at every point on the food web, from herbivores and detritus eaters to super predators.

There is no other way to minimize this ongoing tragedy than to think of industrial and economic alternatives to replace a good chunk of the plastics that mankind does not stop producing. The challenge is big, but in the meantime, it might be worth stopping making fun of the unspeakable.

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