When Sir David Attenborough threw his arms wide to greet revellers at Glastonbury Festival on Sunday afternoon, he was greeted with a thunderous reception. But the moment he began to speak, an electric hush swept through the crowd.
“There was one sequence in Blue Planet II which everyone seems to remember,” Attenborough said to them. “It was one in which we showed what plastic has done to the creatures that live in the ocean.”
He was likely referring to the infamous scene in the final episode in which an albatross unwittingly feeds its chicks scraps of plastic.
But just days before Attenborough took the stage, an equally devastating image flew around the world — this time of a black skimmer bird gifting its baby a cigarette butt in Florida after seemingly confusing it with food.
The photograph was captured by Karen Mason on St. Pete Beach, just outside Tampa.
"Many birds are curious about the things we casually discard, and will often investigate to try and find out if something is food or not," a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) told the BBC. "Sadly, this parent has decided the cigarette butt is something to feed its chick.”
"Nature is struggling to adapt to the things we are doing to our planet — every year, we see more animals trapped, injured or killed by man-made products,” the spokesperson added. “We are even seeing litter being used as nesting material. Unfortunately for many people, littering seems harmless, at worst it makes an area look untidy. However, heartbreaking images like reveal the true impact of littering on our wildlife."
Cigarette filters are often made from a plastic fibre called cellulose acetate — and according to Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, they are the world’s biggest man-made contaminant of the oceans.
A study from the non-profit organization showed that two-thirds of those filters are not disposed of responsibly. It found that the international beach cleanups conducted by environmental nonprofit group Ocean Conservancy collected 60 million cigarette butts all over the world over 32 years — marking them down as the single largest source of rubbish in the ocean.
There are 5.6 trillion cigarettes manufactured globally every year, but the plastic filters in them can take up to a decade to decompose.
Heartbreaking! 😭— Erik Solheim (@ErikSolheim) July 3, 2019
Bird feed chick a cigarette butt.
A wildlife photographer has captured a picture of a black skimmer bird feeding its chick a cigarette filter on a beach in Florida. Time to stop plastic pollution! https://t.co/XZFW10unyCpic.twitter.com/sR0fijBOcT
The filters disintegrate into microplastics, making it dangerously easy for marine life to ingest them by accident. Although filters don’t always make their way to the oceans via the beach, they will often find their way directly through drainage systems.
But as Attenborough said in that final episode of Blue Planet II, there is hope for a better future.
“We are at a unique stage in our history,” Attenborough said. “Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about it.”