How badly is plastic waste affecting sea turtles?

What happens to sea turtles when they encounter plastic waste? How you can help?

Mia Dale
20th September 2023
Image credit - Mia Dale
We often throw around the phrases ‘save the turtles’ and ‘don’t use plastic straws’, but is enough action really being taken to save our marine life? My experience looking after injured turtles this summer in Sri Lanka has confirmed that there definitely is not…

Plastic waste has detrimental effects on our sea life. From micro plastics to larger bottles and bags, our rubbish is harming marine life in a multitude of ways. Turtle sanctuaries provide care to disabled or inured turtles that are unable to survive independently in the ocean. At the sanctuary I volunteered at, one turtle in particular saddened me. She is 184 years old and weighs 65kg. Her over-ingestion of polythene has caused her stomach to swell, meaning she constantly floats, and the top of her shell will never fully submerge under water. Sea turtles are one of the only animals that can’t be operated on, so we can’t remove the plastic from her stomach without her losing her life.

Sea turtles are one of the only animals that can’t be operated on

After seeing the amount of waste that has been washed up during our beach cleans, it’s no surprise that turtles end up in this situation. On average, a small group of us would collect 80kg of rubbish in just one beach clean. Seeing this amount of plastic waste, whilst looking after the turtles that have consumed it, really opens your eyes to the urgency of the situation. 

Plastic bags, bottles, and straws have become a huge threat to sea life, but so have micro plastics, which are less commonly addressed in the media. These micro plastics are ingested by smaller sea animals and can therefore be passed through food chains (even to humans!). For example, the ingestion of micro plastics in baby sea turtles blocks their gastrointestinal areas, causing them to die of starvation. This is a big reason why such a limited number of sea turtles survive but is something that can be prevented by humans. If we reduced our waste and disposed of it correctly, our marine life would have a much better chance at survival. As the World Wildlife Organisation states, 52% of the world’s turtles have consumed plastic waste. Our production of plastic is increasing at a much faster rate than our methods of disposing of it safely, which is posing increasing threats to sea life. 

52% of the world’s turtles have consumed plastic waste

Volunteering at a turtle sanctuary has really opened my eyes to the severity of the situation, and it is something that I believe everyone should witness if they can. But even without this direct experience, we must collectively work harder to reduce our plastic usage, and waste. Whilst change is needed from large corporations, we can individually make a difference by educating one another and reducing our plastic usage. 

Image credit - Mia Dale
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