Why We All Need to Be Part of the Solution

This information was provided by Aimee Winkler Clugston as part of our Earth Hour series and interview:


Plastic pollution in our oceans are a global threat that damages marine ecosystems, harms and kills millions of marine animals, and is affecting the health of humans.

Because plastic is durable, light-weight and lacks decomposition it causes polymers to exist for decades, perhaps even hundreds of years.

Plastic debris travels over vast distances and accumulates on beaches and in the ocean.  It also travels thru the air and causes birds to get entangled in them which causes death because the birds cannot free themselves which in turn causes a slow death from starvation.  It has also been shown that ingestion of plastic in animals can prevent migration and reproduction and can eventually cause starvation and death.  In sea turtles, plastic has been shown to block intestines and make the animals float so that they cannot dive for food.

The amount of plastic debris in the environment is escalating at an incredible rate especially in the marine environment, and is causing a number of problems for wildlife and humans.  The majority of marine debris is plastic.  Fish and seabirds mistake plastic for food.  Plastic can never be digested.   Eating plastic can cause animals to feel full and not hungry even though they are not actually consuming food.  Plastic debris release chemical additives and plasticizers in the ocean.  Plastic also absorbs hydrophobic pollutants, like PCB’s and pesticides like DDT.  These pollutants bioaccumulate in the tissues of marine organisms, biomagnify up the food chain and find their way into the foods we eat.

With plastics ability to absorb dangerous chemicals, plastic pollution may become a factor in human health. Plastic can absorb toxic non-water-soluble chemicals at extreme levels. Poisons such as POPs (persistent organic pollutants, like DDT and PCBs) and other oily pollutants are absorbed and concentrated by the plastic debris encircling our globe. These fragments of plastic break down to a size that some marine organisms mistake as food, these toxins can be released into their living membranes.  As a result, these contaminants may be passed up the food chain, potentially reaching our dinner plates.  In effect, our poisons and debris are coming back to us full circle.

Coastal Development
With the decreasing open area on beaches due to the encroachment of hotels, parking lots, and housing, the female turtles are forced to use alternate nesting habitats.
When the turtles emerge from their nests at night, newborn hatchlings have to find their way from the nest to the sea by using the light of the moon. Due to artificial lighting, such as street lamps and hotel room lights this confuses these hatchlings and sends them landward in the wrong direction, which gives them virtually no chance for survival due to dehydration, exhaustion, predators, and automobiles.

In 1992 the EPA found that a majority of beaches around the world had some measured amount of plastic material.  This included plastic bags, plastic drums, fishing lines and nets, polystyrene packaging, polyurethane foam pieces, lighters, pens, toothbrushes, tires and plastic pellets (caused by leaking shipping and train containers). In certain areas there is more plastic in the water by weight than zooplankton. This accounts for reports of a majority of all marine mammals and sea birds to have some amount of plastic in their digestive systems.  According to the 2001 Marine Pollution Bulletin, there was six pounds of plastic floating in the North Pacific subtropical gyre for every pound of naturally occurring zooplankton. These results were re-confirmed in 2002.

Solid waste, chemicals and pollutants from human activities also enter the ocean, causing injury, illness and even death to sea turtles. These pollution sources range from wastewater discharge released by cruise liners to fishing nets that are lost by fishermen to fertilizer runoff that comes down rivers from farms. This means that even people living in the middle of the United States can have an impact on the health of the oceans, and on the health of sea turtles.

Thousands of manmade chemicals contaminate the marine environment, many of which accumulate in the tissues of sea turtles, affecting their locomotion, brain functioning, and reproductive success. Sea turtles also consume the debris, which are harmful to their digestive systems.

In addition, scientists believe that there may be a link between exposure to agricultural pollutants and the spread and prevalence of fibropapillomatosis.  This is a disease in sea turtles that causes tumors to grow on the eyes, intestinal tracts, lungs, mouth, heart, and other organs.

Direct Harvest
Sea turtles are a component of the dietary and spiritual rituals of many cultures. Some nations, such as the British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Japan, allow juvenile and adult sea turtles and eggs to be directly ‘harvested,’ or hunted and collected legally.

‘Poaching,’ or illegally killing a turtle, is also common in many parts of the world. Poaching of sea turtle eggs still occurs on some nesting beaches in southern Florida, although strict regulations and beach patrols have helped to lessen this problem.

Climate Changes:
The effects of climate change, including more severe storms, hotter sands, rising sea levels, and changing ocean currents, will have severe consequences for sea turtles if nothing is done to improve the situation. To reduce the impact of climate change on sea turtles, it is imperative to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Severe Storms

More severe storms such as hurricanes and tropical cyclones could increase beach erosion rates, endangering sea turtle nesting habitat. In addition, more severe storms could increase the chance that sea turtle nests will flood, decreasing nesting success rates.

Hotter Sands

The sex of sea turtle hatchlings depends on the temperature of the sand in which the nest is laid. As climate change causes sand to heat up, sea turtle populations may lead to a higher proportion of females than males. One study concluded that it is likely that southern populations of turtles in the U.S. will become “ultra-biased” towards female populations if temperatures increased by even 1 degree C.

Sea Level Rise

As climate change melts ice and warms oceans, sea levels rise. Sea level rise projections for the end of the 21st century range from 0.18m to 0.59m. Even a small rise in sea level could result in a large loss of beach nesting habitat. The three most vulnerable land areas in the U.S. are Louisiana, southern Florida and the Chesapeake Bay. The beaches of Florida are some of the most important sea turtle nesting habitat in the world.

Changing Currents

Climate change is altering ocean currents, which are the highways that sea turtles use for migration. With changes in ocean circulation, sea turtles may have to alter their movements and possibly shift their range and nesting timing.

The Gyres of the World

A gyre is any manner of swirling vortex, particularly large-scale wind and ocean currents. Gyres are caused by the Coriolis effect; planetary vorticity along with horizontal and vertical friction which determine the circulation patterns from the wind curl (torque).

These areas make up 40 percent of the world’s oceans. These swirling vortexes all contain incredible amounts of floating plastic debris.



Gyres of the World

North Pacific Gyre
South Pacific Gyre
North Atlantic Gyre
South Atlantic Gyre
Indian Ocean Gyre

The North Pacific Gyre appears to be most polluted, with an estimated 150 million tons of plastic covering an area the size of Texas.