1 July 2021


Imagine you’re in your kitchen and as you approach the countertop your absolute favourite snack appears right in front of you.

It looks just like food, it basically smells like food, so you grab it and gulp it down.

This happens to sea turtles every day when they consume plastic debris in the ocean.

Why do sea turtles eat plastic?

Plastic bags look very similar to jellyfish, fishing nets often look like tasty seaweed. Sea turtles think they’re consuming some of their staple foods when really they’re welcoming harmful substances into their digestive tract.

Human activities have tipped the scales against the survival of these ancient mariners. Nearly all species of sea turtle are classified as Endangered, and plastic is doing more than its share of damage.

At least 1=000 turtles die each year from being tangled in plastic waste
© WWF-Australia

What does plastic pollution do to sea turtles?

Ingesting plastics isn’t a harmless mistake, the consumption of this man-made material can cost sea turtles their lives. That’s because plastic can cause blockages in their intestines and even pierce the intestinal wall causing internal bleeding.

Perhaps the most distressing fate of all is when the plastic in the turtle’s stomach imitates the sensation of being full. Turtles then neglect to seek out other food sources and ultimately die from starvation.

Sadly, it’s not only the consumption of plastic that poses a threat to these marine reptiles, when turtles get entangled in plastic debris they risk choking to death, losing limbs and generally injuring themselves (sometimes beyond repair).

The fishing industry is a serious threat in itself. While turtles are strong swimmers they often become entangled in fishing gear, and once weighted down they’re unable to surface and subsequently drown.

The dismal results: Injured or deceased sea turtles

In recent years, global turtle population numbers have noticeably decreased and in many ways that’s due to plastic.

Research conducted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) found that a turtle had a 22% chance of dying if it ate just one piece of plastic. Once a turtle had 14 plastic items in its gut, there was a 50% likelihood that it would die.

“Even a single piece of plastic can kill a turtle,” explains University of the Sunshine Coast marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend. “Two of the turtles we studied had eaten only one piece of plastic, which was enough to kill them. In one case, the gut was punctured and in the other the soft plastic clogged the gut.”

Their analysis included a sample of nearly 1,000 turtles found dead and washed up on beaches around Australia.

Globally it's estimated that approximately 52% of all sea turtles have eaten plastic.

Further research by the University of Exeter in England examined the way plastics affect mortality rates for sea turtles internationally. According to their findings, 91% of turtles entangled in discarded fishing gear died. In fact, out of the 106 marine experts they surveyed, 84% claimed they had directly witnessed the death of turtles due to plastics.

To top it all off, it’s very likely that all of the above statistics are conservative at best. Each estimate is based on turtles found, but many dead sea turtles are never recovered. Many turtles simply die at sea and are never seen again and even those found on beaches are collected for food.

Australia’s plastic problem: What it looks like and how to stop it

On average, Australians use 130kg of plastic each year, but only 12% of that is recycled. More frightening still, up to 130,000 tonnes of plastic will find its way into the ocean.

In fact, every 60 seconds we dump the equivalent of one garbage truck straight into the ocean. Research shows that for every kilogram of plankton in the ocean, there are six kilograms of plastic. If we carry on as usual, this could mean there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by weight in 2050.

"Currently plastics are being produced at an exponentially increasing rate, but globally our waste disposal technology and capacity is not increasing at the same rate," explains Dr Qamar Schuyler, Marine Scientist at The University of Queensland.

"Plus we now know that unseen microplastics are entering the oceans from our cosmetics, from the clothing we wear, and from fragmentation of larger plastic particles. Unless we take substantial action, the problem is bound to increase.”

The good news: It’s not all gloom and doom. We can do something about the current plastic problem in Australia and hopefully protect sea turtles along the way. By taking action in our everyday lives we can reduce the amount of waste entering our oceans. Here are a few easy steps:

  1. Invest in reusable containers: Did you know that 95% of plastic packaging is discarded after a single use? Avoid this kind of pollution by investing in reusable coffee cups, water bottles, bags and food containers.
  2. Bring your own cutlery: Next time you decide to grab a takeaway, say no to the plastic cutlery that comes with your meal. Bring along your own utensils and ditch the plastic guilt.
  3. Pick up trash when you see it: Going on a beach walk? Keep an eye out for any plastic debris on your stroll and pick it up as you do. Remember, every little bit helps.

Small actions can make a big splash.