Some Elephants Are Turning Into Plastic Polluters

Some consume plastic in dumps then excrete it in forests, study finds
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 31, 2022 4:22 PM CDT
Some Elephants Are Pooping Out Plastic Forks
Asian elephants in India.   (Getty Images / Jagdeep Rajput)

Much has been written about humans' consumption of microplastics. Ditto on the impacts of plastic waste on our oceans. Now comes a report on the plastics—items a heck of a lot bigger than microplastics—that elephants eat and how deep into otherwise unspoiled forests they end up depositing it. The New York Times reports that Asian elephants have been observed feeding at garbage dumps in Uttarakhand state in India. They are not discerning diners, and as such, end up consuming plastic packaging, utensils, and more alongside the food waste they find. Then they walk: some six to 12 miles a day. They excrete the food about four days later, meaning that if they dined at a dump near a forest or national park, it's likely they will end up entering and littering those spaces with the plastic that exits their body via their dung.

Well more than likely. The study published in the Journal for Nature Conservation confirmed it: "We quantified plastic particles and other anthropogenic waste from elephant dung samples collected from edges and interiors of forest areas, confirming plastic ingestion by this endangered mammal species. Each human-derived item was identified, measured, and sub-categorized into plastic or other anthropogenic waste." And as the Times of India reports, out of 75 dung samples analyzed, 24 contained anthropogenic waste, and 85% of that waste was plastic.

The plastic ranged in size from a fraction of an inch to about 14 inches. "Some even had a whole plastic bag. There were also sachets of ketchup, broken glass bulbs, aluminum filaments, rubber bands, clay pottery, copper wires, and plastic cutlery like forks and spoons," says study author Gitanjali Katlam. And there were twice as many plastic particles in the dung samples found within the forest as compared to those on the forest edge near the location of the dumps. "To address the issue, there is an urgent need to segregate waste at source so that it doesn't reach forests," says Katlam; on an individual level, she recommends separating food waste from the plastic it's kept in, so that animals don't ingest the plastic in the course of eating the food. (Plastic in landfills is killing elephants, too.)

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