As the world's experts on plastic pollution gather this week in Honolulu for the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference, a disturbing new report has been released that chronicles what decades of plastic pollution in our oceans has done to sea turtles.
One of the more troubling stories from the report, which was issued by Seaturtle.org's Marine Turtle Newsletter (pdf), highlights an instance of a green sea turtle that had swallowed so much marine pollution that it pooped plastic for a month.
The turtle was rescued in 2009 after marine biologists in Melbourne Beach, Fla., noticed that it seemed to be having problems digesting food. After dislodging a large piece of plastic from the animal's gastrointestinal tract, the turtle proceeded to defecate 74 foreign objects over the next month. Some of those objects included four types of latex balloons, five different types of string, nine different types of soft plastic, four different types of hard plastic, a piece of carpet-like material, and two large tar balls.
Though this turtle was rescued, it is representative of a growing problem for sea turtles around the world, creatures that easily mistake plastics for food items like jellyfish. According to the report, about half of all surveyed sea turtles have ingested plastic.
As single-use plastics increase in use (and get mindlessly discarded at a comparable rate), they gather in the eddying currents of the world's oceans. According to the report, well over 1 billion single-use plastic bags are given out for free every day. Though the report estimates that only about 0.2-0.3 percent of plastic production eventually ends up in the ocean, it accumulates at an alarming rate. In the 1960s, less than 1 percent of our waste was plastic, but today it makes up to 80 percent of all waste that accumulates on land, shorelines, the ocean surface or seabed.
"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," said Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, coauthor of the report. "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."
Of course, sea turtles aren't the only marine animals imperiled by plastic. Plastic debris ensnares marine mammals like seals, and plastics are commonly discovered in the stomachs of whales, dolphins and fish. Micro-plastics have also been found to be accumulating in mollusks and crustaceans.
In an effort to work on solutions to these problems, the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference, meeting this week through March 25, is bringing together marine debris researchers from around the world. The conference hopes to heighten global understanding and appreciation of the threats posed by marine debris, highlight recent advances in marine debris research, and provide an opportunity for the development of collaborative solutions to these problems.
But as the conference's mission statement points out, the solutions won't come easy unless individuals around the world make basic behavioral changes to prevent plastic use. You can access advice and follow the conference events at the group's website at 5imdc.org.