“Subconsciously, people who watched the video knew that the straw in that turtle’s nose could have been thrown away by any of us,” Christine Figgener, the biologist who extracted the straw, wrote in a Medium post after the video went viral. “They saw their own actions reflected in its eyes.”
Not long after saving that turtle, members of the same team of marine biologists in Costa Rica pulled a plastic fork out of the nose of another olive ridley, this time a female. A video of that disturbingly similar extraction was also posted online and viewed millions of times.
After that video came out, I spoke with George Shillinger, the head of the Monterey, California-based conservation nonprofit called the Leatherback Trust, which works with the team in Costa Rica.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he told me. “This was an isolated incident involving a single turtle in a small area off a nesting beach in Costa Rica. Just imagine globally what’s happening.”
In 2015, a study by Australian and British scientists determined that 90 percent of seabirds living today have ingested some form of plastic, mistaking it for food. If plastic consumption continues at its current rate, 99 percent of seabirds will carry plastic in their guts by 2050.
Then can we assume, I asked Shillinger, that the same thing is happening to sea turtles? He replied without hesitation: “Totally.”
Both turtles were released back to sea after the items were freed from their nostrils, but other aquatic creatures are not so lucky. In June 2018, a small male pilot whale that died in southern Thailand was found with more than 80 plastic bags crumpled in his stomach. The veterinary surgeon who carried out the necropsy told Sky News the animal was “emaciated,” as the plastic likely stopped the whale from getting the nutrients he needed.
This is the key to understanding that aforementioned 9 billion ton figure, which was calculated by researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Georgia and the Sea Education Association: Most of that plastic—roughly 7 billion tons—has been thrown away. Only 9 percent is recycled and 12 percent is incinerated, leaving the vast majority of plastic waste accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment, the researchers determined. If you think one plastic straw is bad, think what 7 billion tons could do.
The most eye-opening revelation in the research is how quickly plastics proliferated since the 1950s, when mass production of synthetic plastics first took off. Half of the world’s plastic now in existence was made in just the last 13 years, with most of that for products used only once, discarded and forgotten.
If you think back to that first turtle, his encounter with a plastic straw is a distinctly modern problem. Paper straws were the standard until their non-degradable cousins took over in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, about 175 million plastic straws are thrown out in the United States every day, the marketing analysis firm Technomics estimates.
There’s no denying the incredible usefulness and versatility of plastic. The low-cost, durable material can be molded into everything from lightweight drinking tubes to insulation for our homes. We take for granted that plastic keeps our food fresh and encases the electronics we use everyday. Modern medicine would not be possible without disposable syringes and plastic implants. However, its durability and widespread use around the globe are exactly why plastics are so pervasive in the environment.