IN THE FIRST TWO MONTHS OF THIS YEAR, 13 sperm whales washed up on the shores of Northern Germany. It’s believed that they mistakenly ended up in the North Sea, which is too shallow for sperm whales, and became disoriented. An autopsy eventually found that the cause of death was heart failure. That alone is enough of a tragedy, though a relatively innocent one. But what else they found during the autopsy was deeply disturbing.

The whales’ stomachs were filled with plastic and other man-made garbage. They found the shards of a sharp plastic bucket in one whale’s stomach. They found a 13-meter long fishing net. They found a 70 centimeter long plastic cover from a car engine.

While the whales were not killed by the plastic, it very easily could have killed them down the line. The plastic could have caused digestive problems, and could also have remained in their stomachs, making them think they were full, which would have eventually led to malnutrition.

The oceans are increasingly filling up with mankind’s garbage. This detritus has led to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the ocean where garbage has accumulated in huge numbers. Researchers are now estimating that the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh the amount of marine life by 2050 if nothing changes.