In 2009, marine biologists in Florida examined an emaciated green sea turtle that had washed up on a beach. While investigating the cause of the animal’s condition, they found that a piece of plastic had lodged in the turtle’s gut. When they removed it, the turtle defaecated 74 foreign objects over the following month. Among the items were four types of balloon, five different types of string or line, nine different types of soft plastic, four different types of hard plastics, and a piece of carpet-like material.
Sadly, this is not uncommon.
Approximately half of all sea turtles examined that wash up on beaches have ingested plastic items thinking they were food, as the array of plastic seen in the stomach of one green turtle from the coast of Argentina clearly shows (Photo by Victoria Gonzlez Carman).
In a recent editorial published in the Marine Turtle Newsletter, Colette Wabnitz of the University of British Columbia and Wallace J Nichols, from the California Academy of Sciences, summarized the disturbing history of plastics in the ocean. The report firmly laid the blame at the feet of so-called “disposable” forms of plastics: plastic cups, water bottles and caps, grocery bags, Styrofoam containers and plastic utensils, intended to be used just once and thrown away. While these items are cheap and convenient, they are also durable and buoyant – making for a potent and deadly combination in the sea.
Though some plastics do break down from exposure to sunlight and other elements, plastics never fully biodegrade – they just break into smaller and smaller pieces too small for us to see, but they never completely disappear. Eventually, most of these small particles get into the sea where they coalesce and swirl in ocean currents forming a sort of plastic “soup”, floating virtually forever unless ingested by the creatures of the sea or eventually sinking to litter the seafloor.
Plastic can also entangle sea turtles and can physically interfere with their nesting activity on beaches. It is not uncommon for the Barbados Sea Turtle Project to have to disentangle hatchlings from garbage that they have become trapped in on their journey to the sea, or to assist turtles whose limbs have been literally amputated by snarls of monofilament line.
After heavy rains in Barbados, the Careenage is filled with plastic bottles, cups, bags, and Styrofoam containers that have been swept down, often from sources far upstream. A small percentage of these items are then washed back up onto the beaches, where they join used diapers, discarded monofilament line, and plastic garbage, to leave a disgusting tide line on some of the most beautiful beaches in Barbados. With the next heavy swell, plastic “treasures” that have been buried in the sand are revealed, including these screw tops from plastic bottles collected on one half hour stroll down Browne’s beach. These would soon have washed into the sea and added to the “soup” (Photo by Julia Horrocks).
We now know conclusively that these plastic items are not harmless and that they must be prevented from entering the marine environment if we are to safeguard marine life. Telling people not to litter is not reducing the amount of plastics reaching the sea in Barbados. Recycling and re-using has already reduced some of the plastic in the waste stream. So what else can be done? Safe alternatives to one-time use plastics exist, e.g. the Hawaii-based company www.Styrophobia.com makes food containers from biodegradable and renewable resources like sugarcane, corn and potato. These are both better for the environment and safer for people to eat from. The challenge now is for the business community to spearhead similar efforts to produce and/or distribute safer alternatives in Barbados.