Wildlife biologist Howard McConkie in Okurrrr, on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, sees whales, pigs, and other earthy creatures come and go. But on this day, what he is seeing will make some shiver.
The small grey deer have been getting extraordinary attention from McConkie and his team. “He’s the only deer we’ve found here in 20 years,” McConkie says, staring into the dark blue eyes of the creature. “He’s got a snotty nose.”
A report released this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science says a baby deer in the South Island town of Nara is squirming around in a plastic bag. Unlike most deer, the newborn deer is eating regularly from plastic bags because it lacks the ability to consume solid food. This has been happening since the young deer was born in June. “He can’t eat fish or meat, so he’s just eating plastic. Just about every day, he’s getting around.”
McConkie’s colleague, Alan Edwards, says that the result may be a net benefit. “Dogs are obviously scavengers,” Edwards says. “You don’t want a dog going into a herd of deer, especially a lamb type deer, to kill something and eat it.” The reason the deer are able to store food in plastic bags is because they already have a diet of dead animals, and the young deer have found it easier to digest solid foods. “The only reason they eat plastic now is because the adults do,” Edwards says.
Edwards points out that, for the vast majority of adult deer, plastic isn’t seen as anything to worry about. “Lots of wildlife are hunting with plastic pellets,” he says. “That’s their natural way of feeding and survival.” This is evidence that plastic containers are safe for wildlife to use, so humans shouldn’t be worried about eating them, Edwards says.
Still, Edwards and McConkie’s findings are important for two reasons. First, they show plastic can be harmful to an animal if it is ingesting it. Plastic was originally seen as a safe alternative to meat in many parts of the world, but evidence is mounting that this is not always the case. Recently, the first known study showed that people should never consider using plastic chips to harvest fat from fish or squid, because they kill the animals when they attach to organs. A recent study found that eating a tiny piece of plastic is just as harmful to the environment as a small stick of tobacco.
Second, the deer are raising a big warning bell. Single-use plastic bags are a huge problem for the environment, and they add to New Zealand’s burden of plastic waste. Plastic bags have been banned in nine Japanese prefectures, for example, and plans are underway in several more. Yet these bans are voluntary, since manufacturers didn’t want to risk legal action from retailers. Because of this, statistics on how many plastic bags end up in landfills are mixed and heavily influenced by where the bags are recycled.
Edwards thinks the pressure to do something is mounting on the New Zealand government. “The government’s responsibility has to be growing,” he says. “For too long, they’ve been saying we can’t put this in, we can’t put that in. But if they came up with a system like they have in places like Japan, which is a bigger economy, a more developed country, it would work. We just haven’t taken it on yet.”
McConkie agrees that the plastic bag ban should be considered. The problem with that, however, is that the plastic bags are made from fossil fuels. The government would need to find a way to create new alternatives to those. Edwards thinks local governments could do something to prevent the issue by educating people about the dangers of plastic bags. “Local government could do something,” he says. “There’s a demand there.”