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Effects on Wildlife

Turtle rescued by a staff member from Melbourne Zoo

Turtle rescued by a staff member from Melbourne Zoo

Bryde's whale dying with 6 square metres of plastic in its stomach (photo courtesy of The Cairns Post) © Cairns Post

Bryde's whale dying with 6 square metres of plastic in its stomach (photo courtesy of The Cairns Post)

'Pete' the Pelican died at Kiama after swallowing plastic bags © Planet Ark

'Pete' the Pelican died at Kiama after swallowing plastic bags

Lucky the Platypus with the cut around his neck from a plastic bag © Planet Ark

Lucky the Platypus with the cut around his neck from a plastic bag

Seas of Shame © Nine Network

Seas of Shame

Tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles are killed every year from plastic bag litter in the marine environment as they often mistake plastic bags for food such as jellyfish.

Plastic bags, once ingested, cannot be digested or passed by an animal so it stays in the gut. Plastic in an animal's gut can prevent food digestion and can lead to a very slow and painful death.

As plastic bags can take up to 1000 years to break down, once an animal dies and decays after ingesting plastic, the plastic is then freed back into the marine environment to carry on killing other wildlife.

Turtles of Moreton Bay

Green and hawksbill turtles in Moreton Bay, Queensland, have been dying due to plastic bag litter. Marine Biologist Dr. Kathy Townsend from Moreton Bay Research Station, The University of QLD, confirms that approximately 40% of the turtles she autopsies have plastics, including plastic bags, in their intestinal tract. "The turtles appear to mistake floating plastic bags for jelly fish." says Dr. Townsend.

Dr Townsend's photos are of a 46cm immature female green turtle found dead in 2007, and the large amounts of plastic bags removed from it's intestinal tract. Over 50 items were found, including plastic bags, cling film, nylon rope, candy wrappers and balloons. She has found that the turtles in Moreton Bay seem to target neutrally buoyant soft plastics, like plastic bags and cling wrap, above and beyond other types of marine rubbish available in their environment. "The less plastics entering the environment where they can harm wildlife, the better," says Dr. Townsend.

A Gutful of Plastic

In August 2000, an eight metre Bryde's whale died soon after becoming stranded on a Cairns beach. An autopsy found that the whale's stomach was tightly packed with 6m2 of plastic, including many plastic check-out bags. Such obstructions in animals can cause severe pain, distress and death.

Bryde's whales, like many other types of whales, feed by swallowing large amounts of water. If the Bryde's whale had died at sea, it would have decayed, releasing the plastic to kill other marine life for hundreds of years to come.

‘Seas of Shame’

Each year, plastic pollution kills more that 100,000 marine creatures. This 60 Minutes’ story ‘Seas of Shame’ from 2008 explores how the vast oceans of the world are literally choking with the rubbish we throw away, and the havoc our waste causes wildlife.

See the effects of plastic bag litter on the turtles of Moreton Bay, Queensland and discover the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an island of plastic rubbish twice the size of Britain that floats in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. This plastic soup releases toxins that are now entering the food chain.

Pete The Pelican

In 1998, a pelican was found dead in Kiama after eating 17 plastic bags.

The pelican presumably thought the plastic bags were food. The pelican was preserved and named Pete. Since then he has been standing in front of a sign at Fitzroy Falls that informs visitors of how he died and the problems of plastic bags and ocean pollution.

Lucky The Platypus

In May 2003, a Platypus was rescued from the Don River, Tasmania, after a plastic bag became wrapped around its body, cutting deep into its skin.

The platypus overcame the species' inherent shyness to approach a person for help.

After seeking medical advice and giving the platypus time to recuperate, it was deemed to be okay and set free. On seeing its injuries, its rescuer and the media called it 'Lucky'.

More Information

For more information on the threat plastic pollution poses to threatened marine species, see:

  • The Australian Government's webpage on Harmful Marine Debris
  • United Nations Marine Litter publications