How plastic affects marine wildlife and what you can do

by ZSL on

Meet #OneLess co-founder Fiona

Here at ZSL, we are all working for wildlife. Ambitious and truly inspiring people make it their mission everyday to create a world where wildlife thrives. We would like to introduce you to one of our heroes – please meet Fiona, one of our #OneLess co-founders, ambitiously campaigning against single-use plastic water bottles every day! Learn more about the impact that plastic pollution is having on the ocean and marine wildlife. 

Top five tips to reduce plastic

ZSL's Fiona Llewellyn places last bottle on Space of Waste at ZSL London Zoo (c)David Parry
ZSL's Fiona Llewellyn places last bottle on Space of Waste at ZSL London Zoo (c)David Parry

Firstly, can you introduce yourself and your role at ZSL?
I’m Fiona Llewellyn, and I’m a Senior Project Manager in the Marine and Freshwater Team in the Conservation and Policy department of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). I’ve worked at ZSL for seven years now and I would describe myself as an ocean conservationist.

Just how much plastic is in the ocean, and how does it get there?
Too much! Current estimates are that around eight million tonnes of plastic are entering the ocean from land every year. That’s equivalent to one rubbish lorry’s worth, every minute of every day. Sadly, every part of the ocean is now affected – and this negatively impacts people, the environment, and the economy.

Without action, it's forecasted that for every 5kg of fish there could be 1kg of ocean plastic by 2025 – and by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish. A very scary thought for me.

Globally 80% of plastic found in the ocean originated on land and has travelled out to the ocean via numerous routes, including:

  • poor waste management systems
  • poorly managed landfill sites
  • overflowing sewage systems when they're littered and end up in waterways (such as here in London – the River Thames)
  • wind blowing plastic into the sea
  • urban litter being washed into the ocean via rivers and streams

How does it affect marine life?
It can affect marine life in multiple ways. Animals can mistake bits of plastic for food, for example floating plastic bags for jelly fish, which causes them to choke, block their digestive system, and can lead to starvation and death. Also, marine animals can become entangled in discarded fishing gear and other plastic items, and die from their injuries by suffocating, drowning and starvation. 

Once in the ocean, plastic breaks down into increasingly smaller pieces, eventually becoming ‘microplastics’ realising harmful toxins into the marine environment. Microplastics are also mistaken for food by marine life and pass into the food chain, posing a threat to wildlife and humans alike. Nearly 700 species of marine animals have been reported – so far – to have eaten or become entangled by plastic. 

What scares you most about the Earth’s plastic problem?
Perhaps that we don’t know the full extent of the impacts it will eventually have – on both wildlife and humans. We know that we’re now ingesting plastic as it’s in the food chain – but the impact this will have on our health is not yet fully understood. Also, if levels continue to rise, we will eventually ‘choke’ the ocean. We’ll end up with more plastic than fish; and we will start to see even more rapid declines in ocean biodiversity. If the ocean dies, we die – simple as that!

What is ZSL doing to combat this crisis?
In 2016 ZSL, along with partners, launched the #OneLess campaign.  

  • #OneLess is leading the charge against ocean plastic pollution by ending bottled water use in London – transforming the capital into a place where single-use bottled water is a thing of the past and where plastic waste is drastically reduced for the sake of the ocean.
  • We are working with major London attractions and businesses, as well as the Mayor of London, to find and implement solutions to eradicate plastic bottled water and enable a refill culture across our city. For more information visit
  • #OneLess is unique because of its in-depth approach. It is not a short-term communication campaign, but rather seeks to create a systemic and sustainable shift across London, through targeting a number of ‘change’ areas, including: policy, behaviour, design, infrastructure, business models, perceptions, human values, and the ocean narrative. 

There are a range of other great projects ZSL is working on to combat this crisis! In both our Zoos for example we are reducing our plastic footprint, by removing all plastic packaging and replacing it with compostable alternatives, and sourcing our products responsibly from ethical and sustainable suppliers. With a total of almost 750,000 coffee cups, soft drinks and sandwiches purchased last year at ZSL London Zoo, we've created a monumental change in the plastic we consume at the Zoo.

A lot of plastic is put into recycling bins each day. Does that make a difference?
Recycling is great – but it’s not enough, and unfortunately our recycling rates here in the UK aren’t very good! What we really need to concentrate on is REDUCING the amount of plastic we’re using in the first place. There is a huge amount of unnecessary, avoidable and single-use plastic used in the UK and around the world. And – there are many, many items of plastic that are not recyclable.

Globally, fewer than half of plastic bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Since April 2016, as part of the #OneLess project, we have been monitoring the number of littered plastic bottles in the Thames – and in that time we have collected more than 47,380 single-use plastic bottles from the riverbanks. 

Do you have a personal highlight or achievement you could share with us?
Being one of the founders of the #OneLess campaign. It’s an amazing group of people to work with and I really do feel that we are making change! 

What are the top five things everyone can do today to reduce their plastic footprint?

1. Go #OneLess and stop buying bottled water! Instead carry a reusable bottle with you and fill up with the wonderful tap water we have in the UK!

2. Avoid buying food that comes wrapped in single-use plastic, such as fruit and veg. This plastic is completely unnecessary and often can’t be recycled.

3. Say no to plastic straws.

4. Use a reusable coffee cup – there are some lovely ones out there now. And many coffee shops offer a discount if you bring your own cup!

5. Encourage those around you to be aware of unnecessary and single-use plastic, and avoid it wherever possible.

What does a world where wildlife thrives look like to you?
Exactly that! One where no species are threatened, and one where habitats are restored to healthy levels – and no longer in decline. One where we have stopped the tragedy of extinction from happening. One where we’ve got a handle on climate change and we’ve stopped polluting our ocean and have learnt and now practice the true meaning of sustainability.

It’s an optimistic but achievable goal – if we all start to truly value the natural environment and all it provides us with.

Find out more about #OneLess

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