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Statement by Dr. Cristiana Pasca Palmer on World Migratory Bird Day 2019

Cristiana Palmer

Dr. Cristiana Pasca Palmer
Executive Secretary,
Convention on Biological Diversity


Migratory birds are symbols of an interconnected planet, and many of these are seabirds that migrate thousands of miles over shores and oceans. In recent years, seabirds have become the most threatened bird group, with several species slipping close to extinction. Plastic pollution is one of the serious threats they face.

Many of us have seen the images of dead seabirds with plastic in their stomachs, entangled in fishing gear or choked by plastic rings. It doesn’t make for a pretty picture, but these are just some of the consequences from the terrible toll that our use of plastic takes on birds and other wildlife.

Plastic pollution is particularly a problem for oceans. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year—equivalent to a garbage truck dumping full loads of plastic every minute.

To make matters worse plastic, in its many different forms, is virtually indestructible. Instead of dissolving, it is broken down into small particles by water, sunlight and wind. Birds then inadvertently feed on these plastic particles floating on the water, often mistaking it for prey. Tragically, adult birds then feed the plastic they have mistaken for food to their chicks.

According to current estimates, approximately one million seabirds die annually as a result of plastic. This is appalling enough but the problem is getting worse. Less than five per cent of seabirds studied in 1960 were found to have plastic in their stomachs. By 1980 this number had risen to 80 per cent. Based on contemporary studies, it is expected that by 2050 oceans will carry more plastic mass than fish, and 99 per cent of all seabirds will be ingesting plastic. Together with entanglement, this is the single leading cause for plastic-related deaths among birds.

And because plastic takes hundreds of years to break down, this problem isn't going to disappear anytime soon. But, there are things that we can do, individually and collectively, to greatly minimize the risk of plastic to birds. For example we can limit our use of plastic materials, replace them with eco-friendly alternatives, and use and dispose of plastics sustainably. In our day-to-day lives we can buy reusable grocery bags and reusable water bottles. We can buy cosmetic and personal care products that do not contain microplastics. We can volunteer for beach and river clean-ups. We can avoid littering. And we can alert others about the dangers of plastic pollution by supporting local and global action against excessive, unnecessary or detrimental disposal of plastics.

But we need to start taking these steps now, especially with the large amount of plastic being produced globally and the fact that very little of the plastic that we use every day is recycled or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities. For example, in 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 300 million tons of plastic. According to a recent study, of all the non-recycled plastic produced to date, only 9 per cent of that waste has been recycled, only 12 per cent incinerated, with the remaining 79 per cent accumulating in landfills and the natural environment.

On this World Migratory Bird Day, let’s endeavor to change our behavior and rethink our approach to plastic, from manufacturing and distribution, to our use of single-use plastics. The accumulation of plastic debris is a global problem as large as other key issues, including biodiversity loss and climate change. And after all, the plastic that gets dumped in the oceans not only affects birds, it also ends up on our plates. By working together as a team – governments, businesses and individual consumers of plastic alike – we can reduce plastic pollution, reduce the risks to birds, and help safeguard our precious environment for future generations.

Back to the 2019 Statements Page