Baby turtles eating plastic from the moment they’re born, study finds

A baby sea turtle and balloon, photo: Dr. Blair Witherington / Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
A baby sea turtle and balloon, photo: Dr. Blair Witherington / Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A dead manatee in Florida had swallowed so many plastic bags they formed a cantaloupe-sized ball in his stomach. A baby turtle ate tiny plastic pieces that cut into his intestines. These are examples of around 1,800 marine mammals and turtles hurt or killed by plastic along American coastlines in the last decade.

Researchers found the most swallowed objects were fishing lines, plastic sheeting and food wrappers. Plastic packing straps, bags and balloons with strings were most responsible for entanglement incidents.

After surveying dozens of government agencies, organizations and institutions that collect data on the impact of plastic on marine animals, the ocean conservation organization Oceana found evidence of nearly 1,800 animals from 40 different species swallowing or becoming entangled in plastic since 2009.

Most of the species that consumed or became entangled in plastic are endangered or threatened, including Hawaiian monk seals, manatees, Steller sea lions and all six species of sea turtles, like leatherback and hawksbill.

Among the turtles found to have ingested plastic, 20 percent were babies. “Just moments after they break in their shell, on their first journey to the ocean, they’re already eating plastic that is on our beaches,” Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana, said.

“These animals are consuming or being entangled in everything from zip ties and dental flossers to those mesh onion bags you see at the grocery store. We can only expect these cases to increase as the industry continues to push single-use plastic into consumers’ hands,” Warner said.

“This report is merely a snapshot of what’s happening to the animals inhabiting plastic-polluted waters around the United States,” said Christy Leavitt, report author and plastics campaign director at Oceana.

“Plastic production is expected to quadruple in the coming decades, and if nothing changes, the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean is projected to triple by 2040,” Leavitt said.

Scientists now estimate that 15 million metric tons of plastic flood into the ocean every year. That equates to about two garbage trucks’ worth of plastic entering the ocean every minute. The U.S. plays a significant role in this global problem, generating more plastic waste than any other country.

The solution lies in reducing people’s dependence on plastic products. “Companies have wrapped everything in plastic now,” Warner said.

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