As soon as a sea turtle ingests a piece of plastic, its chance of dying jumps by 20%, according to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Each additional piece of plastic ingested increases the chance of death, so much so that after the 14th piece of plastic is ingested, a turtle has a 52% chance of dying.
That’s an alarming finding because there are trillions of pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, up to 13 million tons of new plastic are added to them annually, and sea turtles today ingest twice as much plastic as they did 25 years ago.
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A recent study out of Uruguay found that more than 70% of sea turtles had marine debris in their guts.
"What we found was that when the turtle eats the first piece of plastic, it has about a 20% chance of dying due to that one piece of plastic and as they eat more plastic, the chance that they die goes up," Chris Wilcox, lead researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, told ABC News Australia.
"We find hundreds of pieces of plastic in some turtles, everything from thin film to rope to fishing line, anything you see in your daily life we see in a turtle,” he added.
The researchers examined around 1,000 turtles that had washed up on Australian shores. They described how some older turtles had lots of wrappers and plastic bags in their stomachs, and a baby had ingested apple stickers.
The team said that previously the connection between plastic ingestion and mortality rates had been speculated, but this new research is the first definitive proof and can help in conservation efforts.
"Now that we know how much plastic it takes to kill a turtle, we can combine that with previous work that we did which looked at the probability of ingestion of plastic by turtles," research assistant Qamar Schuyler told ABC News.
"We can come up with a global mass mortality estimate of how many turtles globally are being killed by plastics,” she said.
Turtles aren’t the only marine creatures affected by plastics. Scientists have identified more than 700 creatures adversely affected by plastic, and it’s likely that all marine creatures are harmed by the substance, especially after it leaches toxins into the water, according to National Geographic.
Earlier in the year, a whale washed up on a beach at Cabo de Palos in Murcia, Spain, and after its stomach was opened up, more than 64 pounds of plastic were found.
Some animals get trapped in plastic, some choke to death on plastic pieces, and others are poisoned by plastic contaminants. The United Nations found that ingesting plastic kills around 1 million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals each year.
Even coral is impacted by plastic pollution, which can pierce its skin, infect it with disease, and block it from receiving sunlight.
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And then there are microplastics, the tiny fragments into which plastic breaks down. A 2014 study estimates that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of microplastic in marine environments. By 2050, overall plastic is expected to outweigh fish in the world’s oceans. These microplastics blanket sea floors, smothering bottom-dwelling creatures, and are regularly consumed by animals.
The new research showing the specific impact of plastic on turtles could accelerate efforts to prevent plastic from reaching the world’s oceans. Already, more than 60 countries have enacted restrictions on plastic, and that number is rapidly rising.