How Does Plastic in Our Waters Affect Marine Life?

Artists for A Pristine Planet

You’ll definitely want to read these important excerpts from articles. (Sources at bottom of this post.)

How Plastic Debris Affects Marine Life

According to the WWF, 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic rubbish each year around the world. Sea animals can become entangled in the plastic debris which can cause strangulation or growth deformations.  Floating plastics can be mistaken for food, causing blockages within the animal’s digestive systems leading to eventual death.

The IOSEA report that the lifespan of the average plastic bag may be between 200 to 400 years, well outlasting the affected animal, while a plastic bottle is thought to take 450 years to fully break down.

What Happened to this Whale?

In August 2000 an autopsy on a dead Bryde’s whale near Cairns, Australia, revealed that its stomach was tightly packed with not food but six square metres [that’s almost 200 square feet – ed.] of plastic rubbish, including supermarket bags, food packages, and fragments of rubbish bags.

The Knock-On Effect To Humans

Not only are discarded plastics believed to have a devastating effect on sea-life, but the impact on animals then has repercussions for the health of human beings.

Toxins ingested by sea animals end up on dinner plates and humans invariably absorb the carcinogens contained in plastics when they consume seafood.

Scientists have proven that the Endocrine Disrupter Chemicals (EDCs) which are added to plastics to make them softer and easier to handle affect fat cells, contributing to obesity.

Scientists also believe that exposure to plastics affects

fertility in humans, brain development, cell and tissue modeling, and can cause chromosomal abnormalities which are handed down to subsequent generations.

Hundreds of thousands of marine animals including sea turtles and whales, and more than 1 million seabirds are reported to die each year from ocean pollution by either ingesting or being entangled in marine debris.

Marine debris is described by conservation organisations, such as SEE Turtles, a California-based conservation tourism project, as being manmade waste that is directly or indirectly disposed of in oceans, rivers, and other waterways.

Most of this rubbish reaches the sea via rivers, and 80% of it comes from landfills and other urban sources.

What Makes Up This Marine Pollution?

The IOSEA Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding has published a booklet on marine pollution that states that seven billion tonnes of debris enters the ocean each year.

This debris may include substances like oil spills, untreated sewage, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), heavy metals from mine tailings, radioactive substances, and general litter like cans, Styrofoam, cigarette butts, balloons, lighters, discarded or lost fishing gear such as lines and nets, which can prove particularly problematic for sea life.

However experts believe that it is the discarded plastics, most of it long lasting, which are the greatest killers of wildlife and make up 60% of marine debris.

How Can The Impact of Plastic Debris on Marine Life be Minimised?

According to the Victorian Litter Action Alliance 6.9 billion plastic bags are consumed annually in Australia and 80 million of these end up as litter on beaches, streets, and parks.

Planet Ark reports that less than 3% of plastic bags are being recycled despite the appearance of recycling facilities at major Australian supermarkets.

Consumers concerned about the problem can play their part by being conscious of what they are choosing to buy and how they are disposing of items. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use reusable shopping bags and refuse plastic where possible
  • Cut plastic rings before disposal to make it harder for wildlife to be strangled
  • Use reusable drink bottles such as those made from stainless steel, or BPA free drink bottles
  • Avoid the use of plastic cutlery and plates
  • Eliminate unnecessary packaging
  • Be vigilant about recycling

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation suggest creating a 100% recyclable and compostable grocery list, choosing paper, glass, or bio-plastic, and petitioning local councils to install screens over storm drains to help keep them free of debris.

Reducing, reusing, and recycling, are ultimately considered to be the most important and effective catchcries when taking a proactive approach towards protecting valuable sea-life, and in turn this care will also contribute to the health of humans’ own future generations.


  1. Global Development Research Centre (Accessed 15 July 2010)
  2. Indian Ocean South East Asian Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding (Accessed 14 July 2010)
  3. SEE Turtles (Accessed 15 July 2010)
  4. Victorian Litter Action Alliance (Accessed 15 July 2010)
  5. WWF-Australia (Accessed 16 July 2010)

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