How Does Plastic Pollution Harm Turtles?
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to spend some time on a turtle conservation project in Costa Rica. What I saw changed my relationship with plastic forever
Surviving against the odds
Look carefully and you'll see that these aren't pebbles but baby turtles who've just emerged from the safety of their nest
I met these little turtles in Costa Rica, just after they'd hatched. Nature makes life difficult, they have to battle dogs, vultures and sea creatures in order to survive their first few hours. But plastic pollution is becoming one of the biggest threats they face. One piece of plastic can kill a turtle and research estimates 52% of all sea turtles have ingested plastic.
A lone adult turtle returns to the sea after laying her eggs on the beach during the heat of the day
Straight after leaving my job in the charity sector, I spent a month volunteering with sea turtles on a project in Costa Rica. I stayed in the small coastal village of Ostional, supporting the government research centre there. We spent our days helping baby turtles emerge from their nests and escorting them down the beach (dogs and vultures are a serious threat). At night we patrolled the beach, watching out for poachers and searching for nesting olive ridley turtles. When we were lucky enough to find them we measured the turtles and counted their eggs. This data is vital in order to protect and learn about these ancient creatures, who we actually know so little about.
Our plastic, our problem
There was another significant aspect to our work there: collecting plastic from the beach. Day after day we'd head out to clear plastic from a kilometre of beach at a time. I quickly realised that the plastic pollution we were collecting was made up of everyday items. Coffee stirrers, wrappers and cups I could have thrown away. This could be my plastic right there on the beach.
It would take hours and we'd return with sacks full of toothbrushes, odd flip flops, bottles, so many straws, cotton buds, packaging - once I even found a needle. In some ways this task was satisfying, the work was physical but you could see your impact when you looked back over the section you'd cleared.
Until you returned the next day.
What's utterly demoralising is realising that the beach it's taken you hours to clear can be covered with more plastic, swept back up in minutes by the next tide. Our oceans are teeming with this plastic waste. It's terrifying.
How Plastic Harms Turtles
The scientists I was working alongside were horrified by the visible impact plastic was having on the turtle population they work with. There were impacts on the turtles' physical size because ingesting plastic was causing so much damage, eventually the turtles' systems become clogged and they starve to death. Baby turtles were sometimes physically unable to reach the sea because of the amount of plastic washed up onto the beach and blocking their way. Our data was showing that there were far fewer turtles returning to the beach to nest. Most concerning of all was how few critically endangered leatherback turtles were nesting. We saw just one over an entire month and she was much smaller than she should have been.
Young turtles seem to be most susceptible to ingesting plastic, probably because they're less picky - and experienced - when it comes to choosing what to eat. Unfortunately in the water it's almost impossible to differentiate between a plastic bag and a jellyfish, a turtle's favourite food. Staggeringly the scope of this problem may be far worse than we'd realised: studies in the Western Mediterranean have shown 80% of young turtles have ingested plastic. In the South West Atlantic near Brazil 90% of juvenile turtles have ingested plastic, but in coastal areas of Brazil this rises to 100%. Yep. Every single turtle studied in coastal areas of Brazil had plastic in its digestive tract. The same research has shown that on average a turtle dies after eating 14 pieces of plastic. But it can only take one.
Our plastic problem
We live in a world where plastic is literally everywhere. While we may be more conscious of the plastic we use, plastic production is actually increasing. Plastic which is made from fossil fuels is seen as a potential area of growth for fossil fuel companies.
It's estimated 90% of children's toys are plastic and yet they're one of hardest items to recycle as they're often made of several components, unlike plastic bottles for example. Yet, these toys crop up everywhere: party bags, gifts, with fast food, as freebies with magazines.
Clearly we need to break our plastic addiction. From the food we eat, to the household items we use, we need to find alternatives to plastic. We need to ensure it doesn't end up in our oceans and rivers, harming the wildlife we love. Find out more about how to go plastic-free.
My experience led to me to create Good Things, where we're trying to make things easier. We seek out suppliers making gifts, toys and games from recycled or bio-degradable materials like cotton and wood. We do have a small number of plastic toys, but every single one is made from recycled milk bottles and exceeds toy safety regulations. They're also carefully built to last. We champion those trying to do things differently by choosing materials that reduce our impact on the planet. I believe we need to buy less, and invest in earth-friendly, long-lasting products that we can safely pass on for generations to come.
Consumer pressure has resulted in a plastic straw ban, we've quickly adapted to reusable shopping bags, some big companies are making efforts to reduce the amount of plastic packaging they use. Recent campaigns have shone a spotlight on companies causing plastic pollution and asked difficult questions of our government. Our voices and choices have power. Let's all make a change now.
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