Seagulls transport plastic from landfills to nature reserves

Seagulls transport plastic from landfills to nature reserves in alarming quantities. An international team led by CSIC’s Doñana Biological Station developed a plastic deposition model based on the diet and movements of these birds.

Waterbirds such as seagulls can play an important role in transporting pollutants. They pick up large amounts of plastics and other waste such as glass and textiles from open landfills and then spit them out as pellets elsewhere.

Plastic ingestion is harmful to the health of birds and can be fatal, but biological vectoring or movement of animals can also cause broader environmental problems due to the bioaccumulation of plastic in natural ecosystems.

Research on the black-billed gull (Larus fuscus), one of the most common winter waterbirds in Andalusia, focuses on the role of these animals in the spread of plastics in natural waters. The study published in the journal Waste management It is part of the GuanoPlastic research project funded by the Junta de Andalucía.

To date, studies on plastic in birds have focused on the marine environment and the role of waterbirds in lakes and other inland waters has been underestimated. In recent years, plastic accumulation in wetlands has received increasing attention“, explains CSIC researcher Víctor Martín Vélez, who worked at EBD-CSIC at the time of the study and is now a scientist at the Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC).

The study tracked 45 seagulls for seven years using GPS devices placed at their breeding sites in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium. Movement patterns were combined with bird populations in the Fuente de Piedra Lagoon in Malaga, as well as dietary studies analyzing the content of regurgitated plastic granules to estimate the amount and type of plastic deposited in the lake by groups of up to twenty thousand wintering gulls.

Black-headed gulls are particularly common in the Fuente de Piedra nature reserve. Their numbers have increased since landfills were created in many parts of Andalusia, where the species regularly feeds on and ingests plastic and other waste mixed with organic waste.

Data collected using GPS showed that they were able to fly up to 80 km to Córdoba, which is the distance between the nature reserve and some of the landfills visited.

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Seagulls transport plastic
Sooty gulls in the Fuente de Piedra lagoon in Malaga. / Victor Martin Velez

Seagulls transport plastic, glass and textiles

The results showed that 86% of the pellets spat into the lagoon contained plastic and 94% contained other debris such as glass and textiles. For detection, laboratory techniques such as plastic classification using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) were used to develop a mathematical model of biovectorization.

It is estimated that seagulls transport plastic every winter, depositing an average of 400 kilograms (kg) of plastic in the lake, with the maximum amount being 800 kg in the winter of 2019-2020, consisting of approximately 16 million plastic particles. The amount of non-plastic waste thrown into the lake is even greater. The main plastic polymers contained in the waste are polyethylene (54%), polypropylene (11.5%) and polystyrene (11.5%).

Our study is the first detailed investigation of gull biological transmission from open landfills to lakes all around the world“ explains Andy Green, CSIC research professor at the Doñana Biological Station. “PFrom what we can see, this is by far the largest source of plastic entering the Fuente de Piedra Lagoon“. Once in the lagoon, the plastic is likely to remain there as it does not drain away due to the lack of drainage as it is endorheic, and will eventually break down into microplastics that affect other wildlife, including flamingos.

Across Europe and many parts of the world, seagulls similarly forage for food in landfills or other sources of human waste and then spend time in lakes and other wetlands. This study quantifies what could be a widespread problem that arises when seagulls transport plastic into natural spaces.

When we throw away plastic, it is likely that some of it will be transported to wetlands by birds. This is also why we need to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated“explains the researcher.


Martín-Vélez V. et al. ” Overwintering seagulls move plastic and other waste from landfills into a highly protected lake“. Waste management.

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