A spotlight on plastic pollution 

A spotlight on plastic pollution 

A groundbreaking new study from England’s University of Portsmouth is examining the amount of plastic ingested by cattle and donkeys in Kenya. The study is investigating how this affects the animals’ health and what impact this has on human lives.

Until now, the major focus of the effects of plastic pollution on animals has been in the marine environment. Much less studied, but equally as concerning, is the effect on terrestrial animals. This is seen as particularly important for livestock that often end up in the food chain, or working animals such as donkeys that support the livelihoods of some of the poorest communities globally.

The University of Portsmouth study focuses on Lamu Island in Kenya. The island is a United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site where subsistence farming is common. Many islanders rely on working animals for their transport and income.

Project lead Dr Leanne Proops, reader in animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Portsmouth, says: “In many countries, including Kenya, domestic animals graze open waste dumps to find food, consuming plastics that can have a dire effect on health and welfare. Even if livestock appear unharmed, meat and milk often contain microplastics that affect human health. The problem of plastic pollution is getting worse, and we need to know how this impacts the animals that play such a major role in communities in the Global South.”

University researchers have carried out surveys and focus groups with local livestock owners, vets, and residents of Lamu Island. They found a growing concern about the links between plastic pollution, ecosystem health, animal welfare, and human well-being. The picture is complex, however, as livestock owners often cannot afford to feed their animals and let their animals loose to graze out of necessity. 

Investigations have begun to examine the foraging behaviours of cows and donkeys in Lamu. The study has already shown that the ingestion of plastic by free-roaming domestic animals is a major problem. Initial results indicate that there are also clear differences between cows and donkeys: due to their behaviour and biology, donkeys seem to be more susceptible to the extreme effects of eating inappropriate materials.

“The next phase of the project will see livestock faeces analysed for plastic levels. This study will be the first to directly compare the relative risks of plastic ingestion in domestic species with differing foraging ecology and morphology. This is also the first step in quantifying the impact of plastic pollution on the welfare of livestock and equids in Lamu specifically, and will help to inform potential future waste management strategies,” expands Proops.

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