A new disease called plasticosis has been discovered in wild birds and is caused solely by plastic pollution, a recent study has found.
The disease is caused by small pieces of plastic that inflame the digestive tract, scarring tissue and making it difficult for birds to properly digest food and absorb vitamins, ultimately affecting their ability to survive, the research published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials suggested.
Scientists from Australia and the UK noticed widespread scarring in flesh-footed shearwater birds on Australia's Lord Howe Island, and found those that had eaten more plastic had more damage to the proventriculus organ, which is the first part of a bird's stomach.
Dr Alex Bond of the Natural History Museum, co-author of the study, said: “While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they're not doing well on the inside.
“This study is the first time that stomach tissue has been investigated in this way and shows that plastic consumption can cause serious damage to these birds' digestive system.”
According to the study, the fibrotic disease in question is defined by scarring to the tissue.
Birds that consume plastic experience a concerning process in which tiny shards become lodged in their digestive tracts, researchers said.
The connective tissue then rapidly replaces the parenchymal tissue, leading to permanent scarring.
Researchers suggest that birds and animals ingest higher amounts of plastic than humans. This newly discovered disease, called plasticosis, may even cause the breakdown of the tubular glands, leaving affected birds vulnerable to parasites and a compromised immune system.
They noted that other inorganic items found in the birds' guts, such as pumice stones, did not contribute to such scarring.
Although plasticosis has been identified in only one bird species, the researchers said that due to the scale of plastic pollution, it may be much more widespread.
An estimated 30 million tonnes of plastic waste are polluting the world's oceans, with a further 109 million tonnes in rivers that will continue to leak into the sea for decades.
An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report published last year revealed that plastic production has doubled worldwide in the past 20 years, with only 9 per cent of it being recycled and 22 per cent mismanaged and left to pollute the environment.
In response to the growing plastic pollution crisis, the UK government has announced plans to introduce a bottle-return scheme from 2025 and a ban on single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery and polystyrene containers from October.
It is estimated that five million tonnes of plastic are used every year in the UK, nearly half of which is packaging.