Ocean plastic smells like food to marine animals

A lot of plastic ends up in our oceans every year, and animals love to eat it.

For a long time, scientists just assumed the animals ate the plastic because it looked like food. But it turns out, it smells like food, too.

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In fact, it smells so enticing that 90 percent of seabirds eat it right now. And by 2050, nearly all of them are expected to dine on it.

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Western lowland gorilla Kamba holds her one-day-old son Zachary at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois, United States, September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young
A pair of black rhinoceros walk at the Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation Park near Marondera, east of Zimbabwe's capital Harare, September 22, 2014. Monday marked World Rhino Day amid dwindling populations of the species due to poaching activities. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo (ZIMBABWE - Tags: ANIMALS ENVIRONMENT)
UNSPECIFIED - OCTOBER 28: African Wild Ass (Equus africanus) (Photo by DEA / F. PAGNI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
The Visayan warty pigs, Samar (front) and Panay run at their enclosure on January 11, 2013 at the Berlin zoo. The pigs, priginating from the Polish Poznan Zoo are named after two Philippine islands. Today, the endangered species live only on two islands. AFP PHOTO / MARC TIRL /GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read MARC TIRL/AFP/Getty Images)
Bali banteng (Bos javanicus), calf. Garig Ganuk Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. (Photo by Auscape/UIG via Getty Images)

When algae coats plastic in the ocean, it gives off the same smell it would have if animals like krill were eating it. Since the birds like to eat krill, they're attracted to the smell of the algae.

It's not just seabirds that are eating plastic. Over 700 species have been seen eating it. And every year, over 100,000 marine animals die from it.

One of the big problems with plastic is that it doesn't decompose. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller chunks as it's weathered by the elements.

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When an animal eats those chunks, plastic can stay in the animal's system for a long time because its stomach doesn't break the plastic down.

This discovery could help make plastic safer for marine animals. But the bigger problem is still the amount of plastic — 8 million tons — that gets dumped into Earth's oceans each year.

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