Scientists have found plastics in the dung of large ungulates. This may threaten the animals’ health

2022 - 12 - 23

The plastic pollution of landscape is starting to be a serious problem even in areas that are among the most valuable in terms of nature in central Europe. The reserve for large ungulates, European Serengeti, in the former military training area of Milovice near Prague has been facing an increasing burden of plastic waste in recent years as well.

This area represents by far the most extensive continuous lowland flat complex of natural open biotopes and dry forests in the Czech Republic. A substantial part of it is a site of Community importance, and a National Nature Monument has been declared in its territory. Nevertheless, contamination with plastics is becoming a serious issue even in such a valuable area. “We have repeatedly found plastics in the dung of large ungulates, which help maintain through their activity the landscape of the former military training area. At the same time, this is a not negligible curiosity. Consuming a plastic bag may deteriorate the patency of the digestive tract of the animals and cause serious health complications to them,” said Miloslav Jirku from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

A municipal waste landfill around one kilometre away is the main source of the site’s pollution. When there is a fairly strong wind, plastic bags, HDPE bags, light plastic packaging for consumer electronics, labels from PET bottles and other plastic waste are blown away from the landfill. “Both using our own resources and with the help of volunteers we have repeatedly cleared the plastics from the reserve. It is very unpleasant work as polythene products get stuck on thorny shrubs, often several metres above the ground,” explained Dalibor Dostal, Director of the European Wildlife conservation organisation, which founded the reserve in cooperation with scientists.

Although the landfill company has promised to provide its employees for cleaning up the reserve in the future, it is not a solution in the long term. “Unfortunately, only a part of the plastic waste can be found and cleaned up. The remaining will get torn on thorns of bushes or begin to decompose due to solar radiation, frost and other weather conditions to such small parts that cannot be picked up. These remains then get into the vegetation, into the soil as well as the water in the local pools. Unfortunately, they also get into the digestive system of large ungulates and other animal species that occupy the reserve,” added Miloslav Jirku.

This example shows how plastics are seriously dangerous to nature. “The situation in the reserve points to the mishandling of plastics in the European Union. The issue is not only the production and sales of risky products such as plastic or polythene bags and the handling of this type of waste on landfills, but also insufficient precautions to prevent its escape into the surrounding countryside,” added Dalibor Dostal.  

There is a total ban on plastic bags in European countries such as Italy and France as well as outside Europe, for example in China, India, Morocco and Kenya. A partial ban is in force in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Brazil. A ban on the free-of-charge provision of plastic bags, which is an insufficient solution though, has been imposed in some EU countries.

Plastics are most often discussed in connection with the pollution of oceans as well as rivers in certain parts of the world. Last year, the UN also warned against the disastrous contamination of the soil, which contains even more plastics than the oceans. In addition to plastic waste that kills sea animals, birds and other organisms, the gradual decomposition of these materials into so-called microplastics poses a risk as well. Scientists have found them not only in water, air and soil, on the highest mountain of the world and in the deepest sea trench, but also in human blood, lungs, placenta and breast milk. According to experts, this poses a potential danger to human health.

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