How Plastic Harms Sea Turtles—and How You Can Help

This World Sea Turtle Day, we recognize how plastic harms sea turtles—and show you how you can help. 

Sea turtles have stood the test of time. They are among the oldest living creatures on Earth. Their origins date back at least 110 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. 

But plastic pollution threatens the future of these amazing survivors. At least 11 million metric tons of plastic pollution enter the ocean per year, and without urgent action to cut plastic production, this number is expected to triple by 2040. With more than 170 trillion plastic particles estimated to be floating on the ocean’s surface alone—and with many more accumulating beneath the waves and on the seafloor—plastic poses a serious threat to sea turtles (and all marine life).

Swimming Through Oceans of Plastic: How Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Turtles

Sea turtles spend their lives traveling the oceans. Female sea turtles will not rest until they reach what they feel is a suitable nesting spot to lay their eggs. For example, in the Atlantic Ocean, female leatherback sea turtles migrate from their nesting grounds on Caribbean beaches to feed in waters off the coast of Canada, an incredible distance of roughly 10,000 miles. When baby sea turtles hatch from their eggs, these tiny creatures must dig their way out of the sand and dodge predator animals as they hurry into the ocean. And that’s just the beginning of their journeys covering super-long distances on ocean currents.

Sea turtles become entangled and entrapped in plastic

Even before they reach the water, newly hatched sea turtles have to navigate through piles of microplastics and plastic items just to make it from the nest to the sea. Mother sea turtles are forced to dig their nests and lay their eggs on beaches increasingly covered by plastic pollution. Entanglements and entrapments in all sorts of plastic items, from car tires to abandoned fishing gear, on land and at sea are common for sea turtles—and are almost always deadly.

Sea turtles ingest plastic pollution

All seven of the world’s sea turtle species ingest plastic. In some populations, more than 90% of individual turtles have ingested microplastics. It seems that younger turtles, and species that feed primarily on the ocean’s surface, generally ingest the greatest amounts of plastic. Just one piece of plastic can spell disaster for a sea turtle: Scientists have found that sea turtles who ingest just one piece of plastic have a one in five chance of premature death; turtles who ingest 14 pieces of plastic have a 50% chance of dying early. Much of the risk comes from physical blockages that plastic items, fragments, and microplastics can create in sea turtles’ digestive systems.

Plastic chemicals harm sea turtle health

In addition to the physical dangers of plastic, its chemicals also pose a risk to sea turtle survival. Plastics contain any mixture of at least 16,000 chemicals, including about 4,200 of which are already known to be hazardous—such as bisphenols (like BPA), dioxins, flame retardants, PFAS, and heavy metals. Plastic chemicals cause numerous and serious health problems in all animals, including sea turtles. Heavy metals in plastics have been linked to hormone-disrupting effects that can feminize sea turtle populations. BPA can have similar feminizing effects on turtles, and can cause infertility. Scientists have also found a connection between plastic and other pollution and harmful tumors that develop on sea turtles.

Plastic pollution on beaches feminizes sea turtles

The sex of a sea turtle is determined by the temperature of the sand surrounding their egg. Usually, male sea turtles hatch deeper in the cooler parts of their mothers’ sand nests, while females hatch in the warmer sands closer to the top of these nests. Sea turtle populations are being feminized not only by plastic chemicals, but also by the way that microplastics raise the temperature of sand on beaches. This effect is made more extreme by climate change, to which plastic production, shipping, and disposal is a significant contributing factor. As a result, on the Great Barrier Reef, 99% of sea turtle hatchlings are now being born female. Experts say the eventual total feminization of the species is a real and unfortunate possibility, a major survival risk.

Take Action

Plastic pollution poses a serious threat to the survival of sea turtles, and all other life on Earth. This World Sea Turtle Day and every day, there are many things you can do to take action toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts. 

Learn more about sea turtles

To learn more, a great book to check out is Christine Figgener’s book, My Life With Sea Turtles: A Marine Biologist’s Quest to Protect One of the Most Ancient Animals on Earth. In 2015, when Figgener and a team of scientists posted a disturbing video of them extracting a plastic straw out of a turtle’s nose, it incited the worldwide conversation around the real dangers of single-use plastics. Figgener’s dedication to protecting sea turtles shines in this heartwarming book.

It’s never too early to gain appreciation of and respect the Earth and all life. Makana Is A Gift by Janet Lucy and illustrated by Alexis Cantu is an inspiring and beautiful educational children’s book about sea turtles perfect for storytime with your little one(s). 

If you’re into podcasts, we recommend tuning into this episode of the Daily Rally from Outside Magazine, which features Plastic Pollution Coalition Founding Advisor and Scientific Advisor Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a sea turtle expert whose book Blue Mind shows us how being near, in, on, or under water is good for our body, minds, and spirits.

Take steps to end plastic pollution

Making small changes to your life, in addition to advocating for systemic change that will help end plastic production and wastefulness, helps celebrate and care for sea turtles and everyone on Earth. Avoiding plastic is better for your health too. If you’re planning on having a beach picnic this summer, essentials like utensils, food containers, and cups all have reusable glass, metal, and wooden options. Make sure to take everything you carry in with you back home to help keep beaches safer for sea turtles.