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© Andrew Sutton

Impact of plastic pollution on whales and dolphins

Message in a Bottle

The ocean is filling up with plastic. It threatens all whales and dolphins, the ocean itself, and our own health. But this rising tide of pollution has rolled in before scientists have been able to fully quantify the harm it’s causing to whales and dolphins, let alone raise the alarm.

With the support of our partner BRITA, we have produced a new report which assesses the evidence, takes a look at what’s happening in the ocean and sets out what we need to do to avert catastrophe.

What we have found is both disturbing and alarming but we believe governments, businesses and the public acting together, and acting quickly, can save whales, dolphins and the planet from the worst impacts of plastic pollution.

We have all caused this problem but together we can all solve it.

Facts about plastic pollution in the ocean

  • Plastics account for 60 - 80% of marine litter
  • A single 1Litre plastic bottle can break down into enough small fragments to put one tiny piece of plastic on every mile of beach in the world
  • We also found that overall 61 (68%) of the 90 whale and dolphin species have been reported to be affected by marine plastic pollution – either by ingestion or entanglement
  • The amount of plastic going into the ocean every year (up to 23m tonnes) weighs as much as 10 times all the blue whales alive today
  • An average humpback whale will ingest around 9.3 billion micro-plastics in his or her lifetime

From the findings in the report, we recommend the following:

Actions that the UK and other governments need to enact:

  • Industry needs to be held responsible, legally and financially, for their product’s environmental impacts via an extended producer responsibility scheme
  • An ‘all-in’ deposit return scheme needs to be introduced
  • A legislative framework that brings in a progressive certainty of direction in the elimination of single use plastics.
Humpback whale plastic pollution sand art
Sowerby's beaked whale
Sowerby's beaked whale © SMASS

Actions that businesses need to take:

  • Plastic production needs to be reduced, especially of non-essential single-use plastic items. This must be enforced by appropriate legislation and policies.
  • Consumers need to be given a choice to buy plastic-free.
  • A widespread system of reusable and refillable containers and packaging needs to be introduced, for example with takeaways. And where this already exists, emulated and rolled out, possibly with grant support.
  • Truly biodegradable products should be developed. Biopolymers occur in nature.

Actions that the public can take:

  • Reuse and reduce are better than recycle
  • Choose alternatives, such as loose fruit and veg in non-plastic bags
  • Use reusable shopping bags, ideally made from recycled plastic
  • Request alternatives of shops, supermarkets, corporations and governments
  • Go litter picking in your towns and cities to prevent litter from making its way into the sea (see our Urban Beach Clean initiative)
  • Replace items for non-plastic only after it has served its life
Dolphin with plastic
Photo © João Vianna/Getty Images

Please make a donation to WDC to support our work on healthy seas and eliminating plastic pollution in the ocean.


The shocking impact of plastic pollution and how we can reverse it.

If you’d like to know more about the impact of plastic on whales and dolphins and how you can help, please read our free report, which includes full references to scientific papers.

Download the report (PDF)

Published with support from:

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