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NGO Research Warns Plastic Pollution is Jeopardising Sea’s Crucial Role in Fighting Climate Change

Whales and dolphins are suffocating on the sheer volume of plastic entering our seas, with the picture worse than previously understood, according to latest research by a leading marine charity. The findings put pressure on the government to include the ocean’s critical contributions to climate change mitigation as an integral part of COP26 conversations in Glasgow. 

The study, Message in a bottle - The shocking impact of plastic pollution on whales and dolphins and how we can reverse it, by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and supported by BRITA UK, reveals that plastic not only pollutes our ocean, affecting more whale and dolphin species with every year, but it also exacerbates climate change. Given the high probability of all whale and dolphins species, including those in UK waters, having been affected by plastics, these findings are a wake-up call from the ocean, telling us we need to change course before it’s too late. 

Plastics have been shown to have a very negative affect on whales’ and dolphins’ ability to feed, digest, navigate, breathe, breed and migrate. Yet the research, published on World Cleanup Day, finds that the number of whale and dolphin species known to be affected by marine litter has increased profusely, from 37% in 1997 to 81% today. Indeed, the only species without plastics in their bodies are those that haven’t been studied, leading scientists to believe that all species are most likely affected. While plastic waste has long been a problem, production of plastic waste has increased worldwide during the pandemic, meaning urgent action is needed to stem the tide. 

Whales and dolphins are our allies in the fight against climate change. With the IPCC highlighting that we are running out of time to limit the effects of climate breakdown, the report also makes clear just how important whales and dolphins are to the ocean’s ecosystem, as well as plastic’s adverse impact on the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon. Put simply, fewer whales and dolphins mean more carbon in the atmosphere, with one whale equating to thousands of trees in terms of carbon capture. 

WDC and BRITA are calling on policymakers not to overlook the link between plastic pollution and increasing carbon emissions when discussing global solutions in the fight against climate change. COP26 provides an opportunity to draw on these learnings and ensure international conversations move in the direction of strengthening the ocean’s ability to mitigate climate change. If we have any hope of saving whales and dolphins from increasing plastic pollution, global governments need to agree on policies that eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics and prevent plastic pollution from entering our ocean. 

World CleanUp Day is focused on supporting the natural world and everything in it, including whales and dolphins. BRITA UK and WDC have launched this report to show just how important it is that we all work together and carry forward the principles of World Cleanup Day into our everyday lives. 

Julia Bradbury, TV presenter and WDC Patron, said: “WDC’s study shines an important light on the scale, and impact, of marine litter, however there is still a lack of understanding about the impact of our plastic waste here in the UK. We hope that this new report helps to educate the public and raise awareness of the issue, and encourage people to limit their use of single-use plastics.” 

Reflecting the shocking scale of the issue, the report also shows that: 

  • Given the high probability of all whale and dolphins species, including those in UK waters, having been affected by plastics, these findings are a wake-up call from the ocean, telling us we need to change course before it’s too late. 
  • Plastics account for 60-80% of marine litter. 
  • The amount of plastic going into the ocean every year (up to 23m tonnes) weighs as much as ten times all the blue whales alive today.  
  • An average humpback whale will ingest around 9.3 billion micro-plastics in their lifetime.  
  • If everyone in the UK prevents 5 plastic items from going into landfill every week, we would stop 177,580 tonnes of plastic entering the ocean every year. 
  • In 1997, plastics were effecting 37% of whale and dolphin species. By 2021 that number was over 81%. 

We need the ocean now more than ever. Looking to the future we need to embed reuse as a key use of resources in global conversations – from using reusable containers to creating closed-loop materials.

WDC is urging businesses to consider their plastic footprint as part of commitments to net zero and tackling climate change and commit to addressing this. Businesses need to limit unnecessary single-use plastic throughout operations and support customers and employees to tackle their plastic footprint. Together we can protect the ocean, fight climate change, and alter our negative impact on whales and dolphins for future generations.

Rebecca Widdowson, Marketing Director of BRITA UK, said: “Single-use plastics are having a detrimental impact on our ocean, with severe repercussions for whales and dolphins and also climate change. BRITA UK is proud to be working with WDC to bring the results from this report to everyone’s attention, and highlight the important steps we can all take to help protect these beautiful marine species and also ensure the ocean can continue to fulfil its vital role in the fight against climate change.”


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