Our Plastic Food Chain -or- The Turtle Who Pooped Plastic
As ocean pollution experts meet in Hawaii, disturbing new report chronicles effects of decades of plastic pollution on sea turtles—and what we can do about it.
Honolulu, 22 March 2011
The list of items from this one turtle read like a catalog of a growing and deadly concern for virtually all marine animals—single-use plastics are having a lethal effect on animals living in the sea.
Experts on plastic pollution from around the world, determined to solve this growing problem, have gathered this week for the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, a mecca for green sea turtles.
Among the more startling facts reported is that 1 billion single-use plastic bags are distributed free of charge every day, of which an estimate 0.2-0.3% make their way to the ocean. Even that small percent means hundreds of millions of bags each year are left to float in the sea. In particular, the crisis has had a deleterious effect on sea turtles, which mistake the floating bags for jellyfish, a favorite food.
All seven species of sea turtle are listed as endangered on the World Conservation Union’s “Red List” of species in danger of extinction, a situation made even more urgent for many animals by plastic pollution.
“Last year I counted 76 plastic bags in the ocean in just one minute while standing in the bow of our sea turtle research boat at sea in Indonesia”, reports Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences and coauthor of the review. “The science is becoming crystal clear: sea turtles and plastic pollution don’t mix well. Sea turtles have spent the past 100 million years roaming seas free of plastic pollution, and are now sadly the poster animal for impacts of our throw away society on endangered species”, states Nichols.
Other facts reported by Wabnitz and Nichols and explicitly illustrated in the accompanying photo library, include:
• Worldwide, plastic pollution is adding to the stress on endangered ocean wildlife, like sea turtles;
• Plastic can be ingested by or entangle sea turtles and can physically interfere with their nesting activity on beaches when it accumulates in large amounts;
• Approximately half of all sea turtles surveyed had ingested plastic items; and,
• Micro-plastics are accumulating in molluscs and crustaceans sea turtles eat.
The authors were not without suggestions for corrective measures to ameliorate or end the plague of plastics in the ocean. In addition to broader policy efforts recommended by the authors, were simpler—”off-the-shelf”—personal behavior solutions, including:
• Avoiding plastic-bottled beverages;
• Buying products with minimal or reusable packaging;
• Buying in bulk whenever possible to reduce packaging;
• Buying used items;
• Seeking out reusable shopping and produce bags like those made from renewable sources (e.g., natural fibres) and always bringing them along;
• For coffee and or tea – bring your own mug;
• For food – bring your own container.
“Sea turtle researchers and conservationists have a unique role to play in our cultural evolution away from plastic pollution, as we have watched the havoc the surge of plastic has caused first hand”, notes Dr. Colette Wabnitz of the University of British Columbia.
The pdf of the report and a collection of images from around the world depicting in excruciating detail the impact of plastic on sea turtles can be found at: