Plastic Homes

Plastic Homes

Hermit crabs; the mobile homed scavengers of shallow marine environments. Whilst their property swapping traits have long interested scientists and children alike, the humble hermit plays a vital and often overlooked role in recycling energy and nutrients back into their local ecosystem. Thought of as the waste management team of their tidal environment, these crustaceans manage and protect their surroundings by cleaning and eating their way through deceased mollusks, making space for new life.


Like almost every species on our planet, hermit crab environments have become pressured and subsequent victims of our modern, disposable lifestyles. This is most evident in the case of the Cocos Islands (Indian Ocean) in 2019  where 508,000 crabs died as a result of plastic pollution along the once pristine coastline (Guardian, 2019). A separate study in the Pacific found 61,000 dead crabs on Henderson Island in the same year, all as a result of washed up plastic containers and bottles. 

One of the studies researchers and a senior curator at the Natural History Museum, Dr Alex Bond wrote: “The problem is quite insidious really, because it only takes one crab. Hermit crabs do not have a shell of their own, which means that when one of their compatriots die, they emit a chemical signal that basically says there’s a shell available, attracting more crabs… essentially it is this gruesome chain reaction”. In one severe case, 526 crabs were found in one plastic container (Guardian, 2019).   


The situation facing hermit crabs is not an isolated phenomenon, nor an inevitable one, as much of marine life around our planet feels the pressures of our plastic consumption and subsequent waste. Despite a global pandemic, experts believe 2020 saw a record amount of plastic enter the oceans, with 2021 thought to set new records (Greenpeace, 2021). The single-use societies that we inhabit today have an inconceivable impact felt even in the furthest corners of the planet, more often than not out of sight, and as a result for most, out of mind.

The fate of the hermit crabs on the Cocos and Henderson Islands would have remained unknown without the studies taking place, and no doubt hermit crabs face the same dire circumstance elsewhere. Whilst the hermit crab situation is only one story, it perhaps provides one of the more literal and visible examples of how our plastic waste upends and disrupts marine ecosystems the world over. 


Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, and if it hasn’t been incinerated (thought to be 12%) then every piece of plastic ever produced is still on the planet, either in our oceans or in landfill (UN, 2021). Radical change is needed, from government policy, to consumer behaviour, and in product design with regards to product life-cycles. If we are to believe leading climate scientists (and we should!), we are currently on the precipice. Making the right decisions and avoiding single used plastics has never been easier. Start today, that plastic water bottle doesn’t have to become an inappropriate home for a hermit crab halfway around the world

Andrew Fidler
Silke Stuckenbrock