By now, it’s common knowledge that plastic waste, made of synthetic polymers that can take hundreds of years to break down, is slowly suffocating our planet. And yet the largest accumulations of former shopping bags, styrofoam takeout containers, coffee cup lids, and the other single-use items that make modern life so pleasingly convenient are typically out of sight – perhaps in a landfill or circulating in a clump twice the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific.
Either way, the garbage is also out of mind.
But this week, residents of Copenhagen received a sobering reminder that carelessly dumped plastics and other unnatural detritus can threaten the environment closer to home after photos of a swan in a city lake literally nesting on a pile of trash went viral.
According to local reports, the refuse on the nest was likely thrown into the waters of Copenhagen's lakes from the nearby Dronning Louises Bro bridge. From there, it was picked up by the unfortunate swan as it attempted to construct a safe nest for its eggs. A similar sight was observed during last year’s breeding season.
“We are very concerned,” the Danish Society for Nature Conservation’s president, Maria Reumert Gjerding, told local news station TV2. “Natural material is broken down and breaks more easily when eaten by animals – but not with plastic, which animals can easily mistake [for natural material]. They think it’s natural, but it isn’t,” she said.
“If the animals eat it, they risk being killed by it. They are also at risk of becoming tangled up in it, and it is strong material, so that can also kill them.”
Recent investigations have found that "death by plastic" is increasingly common among birds and marine mammals, as hungry animals mistake the abundant plastic for potential food. Unable to pass the items through their digestive tracts, the animals often die slowly from starvation.
The news is particularly sobering considering that Copenhagen, and Denmark as a whole, is probably filled with considerably less litter than most other nations.
Just last year, the ecologically minded country completed construction on its experimental €500-million ($615-million) waste-to-energy trash incinerator – designed to provide power and heating to residents of the capital – and their parliament unanimously drafted a guidance letter to the EU Commission urging for a drastic cut down on production of plastic products, increased efforts to promote recycling, and a complete ban of microbeads along with a plan to remove them from the aquatic environment.