About 90 per cent of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind, scientists say.
Australian and British researchers say it demonstrates the urgent need for all nations to better manage their waste and cut down on packaging.
Scientists from CSIRO and Imperial College, London have analysed published studies dating back to the early 1960s.
In 1960, plastic was found in the stomachs of less than 5 per cent of individual seabirds, but by 2012 that figure was at 80 per cent.
The scientists predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99 per cent of the world’s seabird species by 2050, based on current trends.
Birds commonly mistake brightly coloured plastic for food. Many become ill or die as a result.
“For the first time, we have a global prediction of how wide-reaching plastic impacts may be on marine species and the results are striking,” the CSIRO’s Chris Wilcox says.
“We predict, using historical observations, that 90 per cent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution.”
The researchers found plastics will have the greatest impact on wildlife where they gather in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.
That puts species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in those areas, at particular risk.
Dr Denise Hardesty, who is also with the CSIRO, says waste management systems must be improved.
“Even simple measures can make a difference, such as reducing packaging, banning single-use plastic items or charging an extra fee to use them, and introducing deposits for recyclable items like drink containers,” she says.
She said recent efforts in Europe had resulted in measurable changes in the amount of plastic being found in the stomachs of seabirds.
That had occurred over just a decade, showing waste management improvements could yield results over a relatively short period of time, she said.