If you spend any time on social media, I bet you’ve seen this viral video of an injured sea turtle posted a couple years ago (warning: it’s graphic!).
Though fortunately the turtle survived, animal rescue workers pulled and tugged for nearly five minutes to remove a foreign object from its nostril.
Remember what it was? A single-use plastic straw. The same kind as 500 million others like it that are used and discarded every day in the U.S. alone.
Plastics like that are here to stay for a long, long time. And every single one that ends up in our oceans and landfills is a potential harm to wildlife, and the overall health of the planet.
Since sea turtles periodically return to land, or surface near boats, we can see with our own eyes how they become entangled, impaled, or otherwise injured by debris that we’re responsible for. But plenty of other types of wildlife are harmed by plastic pollution that we may not get a chance to witness.
Our sea turtle in that heartbreaking video may have only stuck its nose in the wrong place at the wrong time while rooting around a patch of turtle grass. But perhaps more alarming is the fact that some animals are intentionally ingesting plastic—they mistake it for food.
For example, mother shearwaters—a type of shorebird—are accidentally feeding plastic to their chicks. Algae growing on the surface of the plastic gives it a scent that the adults usually associate with food, so they unwittingly pick it up and feed it directly to their babies. A belly full of hard, indigestible plastic means there’s no room for real food, they’re too heavy to fly, and/or they sustain life-threatening injuries from sharp pieces.
Many of these babies don’t survive.
There are also numerous accounts of sea turtles, whales, and other marine life eating plastic bags, likely mistaking them for a common food source: jellyfish. Just recently, a male pilot whale died in Thailand after ingesting 80 plastic bags. And sadly, that happens all the time.
Plastic isn’t causing harm to wildlife just by ingestion: it’s mere presence can be catastrophic for more sensitive ecosystems where it doesn’t belong. In the Asia-Pacific region, 89% of coral reefs that are affected by plastic debris were found to be diseased. Between being cut by sharp plastics or smothered by larger pieces, injured corals become easily infected.
“Plastics are ideal vessels for microorganisms, with pits and pores, so it’s like cutting yourself with a really dirty knife,” said Joleah Lamb, a researcher from Cornell University studying the correlation between plastic pollution and disease in corals.
If this all has you feeling a little hopeless, know that there are many things you can do to help. And even the smallest step in the right direction is worth taking.
For starters, why not personally pledge to stop using single-use plastic straws, and opt instead to go straw-free, or try an alternative. HAY! Straws are single-use straws made from natural wheat, and they’re 100% plastic-free and biodegradable.
Check out these guides from BBC Plastics Watch and the Plastic Pollution Coalition to learn more about what you can do to reduce harm to wildlife from plastic pollution.