Plastic debris in the oceans has affected at least 700 species of marine animals, at least according to a new study done by Plymouth University.

In that study, researchers found that over 40,000 ocean animals all over the world have either swallowed or become entangled in plastic debris.

Researchers also found that 17 percent of all species affected by plastic debris were on the threatened or near threatened list as part of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including the loggerhead turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal.

"We live in a disposable society, where 30 per cent of the plastic we produce is used for packaging that we throw away within a year of manufacture," says Professor Richard Thompson, a leading expert. "You can understand why we produce so much plastic - it's incredibly useful, it lasts a long time and is lightweight - but it's also creating a global waste management problem, and this is especially true in the marine environment."

In their study, researchers looked at reports of debris-related incidents of marine animals that went back as far as the 1960s.

Most entanglements involved plastic rope and netting. Animals most likely caught in these items were whales and turtles. Plastic fragments were most often accidentally eaten by marine animals, most often in seal lions and turtles.

"We found that all known species of sea turtle, and more than half of all species of marine mammal and seabird had been affected by marine debris -- and that number has risen since the last major study," says Sarah Gall, one of the study's authors. "And in nearly 80 per cent of entanglement cases this had resulted in direct harm or death."

However, it's not just larger pieces of plastics that are causing problems. The ocean also contains many smaller fragments of plastic, called "microplastics," which has greatly increased in numbers since the 1960s. Thompson did a previous study looking at these microplastics ingested by smaller organisms, such as plankton, suggesting that they also affect larger ocean life because larger animals feed on those organisms.

Thompson is pursuing several initiatives with both private and public organizations to make the world more aware of the effects of plastic in the marine environment. One such program involved a competition that had school children creating videos on the effects of plastic litter in the oceans.

Thompson believes that if everyone works together, "there is considerable hope we can resolve this problem."

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