Investigation launched into impact of plastic pollution on livestock and working animals

Researchers examine the amount of plastic cattle and donkeys in Kenya ingest, how this affects their health and the impact on human lives.
By University of Portsmouth
Research Findings Investigation launched into impact of plastic pollution on livestock and working animals

The groundbreaking new study was announced today at the University of Portsmouth’s PlasticsFuture 2023 Conference, a global gathering of experts looking to solve the plastic pollution crisis. As part of their work, researchers will study the feeding behaviour and levels of plastic ingested by cattle and donkeys; working with animal owners and local communities to improve animal welfare.

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 animals such as livestock that often end up in the food chain or working animals such as donkeys who support the livelihoods of some of the poorest communities globally. Researchers want to understand more about the magnitude of the problem and find ways of solving it.

Scientists already know that the effects of livestock eating larger (macro) plastics can range from loss of body condition and disease to plastics blocking the digestive tract, leading to colic, starvation and death. The effects of microplastics, which leech into the soil and plants that animals eat, include reduced growth and fertility, abnormal behaviour, and biochemical and structural damage.

The University of Portsmouth study focuses on Lamu Island in Kenya. It is a UNESCO world heritage site where subsistence farming is common. Many islanders rely on working animals for their transport and income. Plastic waste is endemic and waste sites are largely unmanaged. A recent investigation conducted by University researchers and The Flipflopi Project in a Lamu abattoir found a slaughtered cow with a staggering 35kg of plastic in its stomach.

Project Lead, Dr Leanne Proops, Reader in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Portsmouth said: “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.”

The new project is a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and The Donkey Sanctuary in Lamu. The sanctuary runs a programme that strives to address the underlying causes of poor welfare in Lamu, part of which includes a clinic for chronic and acute donkey health needs. Dr Obadiah Sing’Oei, Lamu Clinic Team Lead and Lead Vet, said: “We see the devastating impacts of plastic pollution on these animals on a daily basis, and know the knock-on effects to owners who rely on them for their livelihoods. We are pleased that, with the help of researchers from Portsmouth, we will be able to highlight this worrying issue.”

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 wellbeing. However, the picture is complex, livestock owners often cannot afford to feed their animals and through necessity let their animals loose to graze.

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.

Dr Proops said: “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.”

During the focus group meetings, it became clear that donkey owners were keen to raise awareness of donkey welfare issues among other owners and the wider community. The participants said the development of some creative pieces such as theatre and song would work well within the community. In the next phase of the project, researchers will work with Lamu Arts and Theatre Alliance to develop arts-based initiatives to raise awareness of the risk factors for poor donkey welfare within the local community.

Dr Cressida Bowyer, Project Collaborator and Deputy Director of the Revolution Plastics research initiative at the University of Portsmouth, added: “Arts-based initiatives, visual art, storytelling and performance in particular, have wide general appeal, breaking down barriers, and often reaching a large number of sometimes difficult to reach communities. Using such socially and culturally relevant approaches can stimulate debate and create lasting change. Working closely with local communities and organisations* to design and deliver the project helps to ensure that the research empowers and benefits the local community.”

The project is just one of many plastic pollution issues to be discussed at PLASTICSFUTURE 2023. The mission driven conference aims to inspire new solutions to end plastic pollution. It is an opportunity to share global research and innovation across communities and forge future collaborations.

*Local organisations include Lamu Arts, Flipflopi and the Donkey Sanctuary