Will the discovery of another plastic-trashed island finally spark meaningful change?


Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania and Annett Finger, Victoria University

Today we learnt of yet another remote and formerly pristine location on our planet that’s become “trashed” by plastic debris.

Research published today in Scientific Reports shows some 238 tonnes of plastic have washed up on Australia’s remote Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

It’s not the first time the world has been confronted with an island drowning under debris. Perhaps it’s time to take stock of where we’re at, what we’ve learnt about plastic and figure out whether we can be bothered, or care enough, to do something meaningful.




Read more:
This South Pacific island of rubbish shows why we need to quit our plastic habit


Taking stock

In 2017, the world was introduced to Henderson Island, an exceptionally remote uninhabited island in the South Pacific. It has the dubious honour of being home to the beach with the highest ever recorded density of plastic debris (more than 4,400 pieces per metre squared).

What’s more, a single photo taken in 1992 showed Henderson Island had gone from pristine to trashed in only 23-years.

Now, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands off the coast of Australia are set to challenge that record, despite being sparsely populated and recognised for having one of Australia’s most beautiful beaches.

A recent, comprehensive survey of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands revealed mountains of plastic trash washed up on the beaches.




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While the density of debris on Cocos (a maximum of 2,506 items per square metre) was found to be less than that on Henderson Island, the total amount of debris Cocos must contend with is staggering: an estimated 414 million debris items weighing 238 tonnes.

A quarter of the identifiable items were found to be “single-use”, or disposable plastics, including straws, bags, bottles, and an estimated 373,000 toothbrushes.

At only 14 kilometres squared, the entire Cocos (Keeling) Island group is a little more than twice the size of the Melbourne CBD. So it’s hard to envision 414 million debris items in such a small area.

Lessons learned

Islands “filter” debris from the ocean. Items flow past and accumulate on beaches, providing valuable information about the quantity of plastic in the oceans.

So, what have these two studies of remote islands taught us?

South Island. A quarter of the identifiable items were found to be disposable plastics.
Cara Ratajczak, Author provided

On Cocos, the overwhelming quantity of debris you can see on the surface accounts for just 7% of the total debris present on the islands. The remaining 93% (approximately 383 million items) is buried below the sediment. Much like the proverbial iceberg, we’re only seeing the very tip of the problem.

Henderson Island, on the other hand, highlighted the terrifying pace of change, from pristine, tropical oasis to being inundated with 38 million plastic items in just two decades.

In the past 12 months alone, scientists have made other, ground-breaking discoveries that have emphasised how little we understand about the behaviour of plastic in the environment and the myriad consequences for species and habitats – including ourselves.




Read more:
Eight million tonnes of plastic are going into the ocean each year


Here are a few of the shocking discoveries:

  • microplastics were reported in bottled water, salt and beer

  • chemicals from degrading plastic in the ocean were found to disrupt photosynthesis in marine bacteria that are important to the carbon cycle, including producing the oxygen for approximately every tenth breath we take

  • degrading plastic exposed to UV sunlight (such as those on beaches) was reported to produce greenhouse gas emissions, including methane. This is predicted to increase significantly over the next 20 years in line with plastic production trends

  • microplastic particles are ingested by krill at the base of the marine food web, then fragmented into nano-sized particles

  • plastic items recovered from the ocean were found to be reservoirs and potential vectors for microbial communities with antibiotic resistant genes

  • tiny nanoplastics are transported via wind in the atmosphere and deposited in cities and even remote areas, including mountain tops

Meaningful action

Clean-ups on near-shore islands and coastal areas around cities are fantastic.

The educational component is invaluable and they provide an important sense of community. They also prevent large items, like bottles, from breaking up into hundreds or thousands of bite-sized microplastics.

But large-scale clean-ups of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and most other remote islands, are challenging for a variety of reasons. Getting to these locations is expensive, as would be shipping the plastic off for recycling or disposal.

There are also serious biosecurity issues relating to moving plastic debris off islands. Even if we did somehow manage to clean these remote islands, it would not be long before the beaches are trashed again, as it was estimated on Henderson Island that more than 3,500 new pieces of plastic wash up every single day.

As Heidi Taylor from Tangaroa Blue, an Australian initiative tackling marine debris, puts so aptly:

if all we ever do is clean up, that is all we will ever do.

For our clean-up efforts to be effective, they must be paired with individual behaviour change, underpinned by legislation that mandates producers to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products.

Single-use items, such as razors, cutlery, scoops for coffee or laundry powder and toothbrushes were very common on the beaches of Cocos. Clearly this is an area where extended product stewardship laws (following the principles of a circular economy), coupled with informed consumer choices can lead to better decisions about the types of products we use and how and when we dispose of them.




Read more:
There’s no ‘garbage patch’ in the Southern Indian Ocean, so where does all the rubbish go?


The global plastic crisis requires immediate and wide-ranging actions that drastically reduce our plastic consumption. And large corporations and government need to adopt a leadership role.

In the EU, for instance, governments voted in March 2019 to implement a ban on the ten most prolific single-use plastic items by 2021. The rest of the world urgently needs to follow suit. Let’s stop arguing about how to clean up the mess, and start implementing meaningful preventative actions.The Conversation

Jennifer Lavers, Research Scientist, University of Tasmania and Annett Finger, Adjunct Research Fellow, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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There’s no ‘garbage patch’ in the Southern Indian Ocean, so where does all the rubbish go?


File 20190401 177175 1wvztzj.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Plastic waste on a remote beach in Sri Lanka.
Author provided

Mirjam van der Mheen, University of Western Australia; Charitha Pattiaratchi, University of Western Australia, and Erik van Sebille, Utrecht University

Great areas of our rubbish are known to form in parts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. But no such “garbage patch” has been found in the Southern Indian Ocean.

Our research – published recently in Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans – looked at why that’s the case, and what happens to the rubbish that gets dumped in this particular area.

Every year, up to 15 million tonnes of plastic waste is estimated to make its way into the ocean through coastlines (about 12.5 million tonnes) and rivers (about 2.5 million tonnes). This amount is expected to double by 2025.




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Some of this waste sinks in the ocean, some is washed up on beaches, and some floats on the ocean surface, transported by currents.

The garbage patches

As plastic materials are extremely durable, floating plastic waste can travel great distances in the ocean. Some floating plastics collect in the centre of subtropical circulating currents known as gyres, between 20 to 40 degrees north and south, to create these garbage patches.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Here, the ocean currents converge at the centre of the gyre and sink. But the floating plastic material remains at the surface, allowing it to concentrate in these regions.

The best known of these garbage patches is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which contains about 80,000 tonnes of plastic waste. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points out, the “patches” are not actually clumped collections of easy-to-see debris, but concentrations of litter (mostly small pieces of floating plastic).

Similar, but smaller, patches exist in the North and South Atlantic Oceans and the South Pacific Ocean. In total, it is estimated that only 1% of all plastic waste that enters the ocean is trapped in the garbage patches. It is still a mystery what happens to the remaining 99% of plastic waste that has entered the ocean.

Rubbish in the Indian Ocean

Even less is known about what happens to plastic in the Indian Ocean, although it receives the largest input of plastic material globally.

For example, it has been estimated that up to 90% of the global riverine input of plastic waste originates from Asia. The input of plastics to the Southern Indian Ocean is mainly through Indonesia. The Australian contribution is small.

The major sources of riverine input of plastic material into the Indian Ocean.
The Ocean Cleanup, CC BY-NC-ND

The Indian Ocean has many unique characteristics compared with the other ocean basins. The most striking factor is the presence of the Asian continental landmass, which results in the absence of a northern ocean basin and generates monsoon winds.

As a result of the former, there is no gyre in the Northern Indian Ocean, and so there is no garbage patch. The latter results in reversing ocean surface currents.

The Indian and Pacific Oceans are connected through the Indonesian Archipelago, which allows for warmer, less salty water to be transported from the Pacific to the Indian via a phenomenon called the Indonesian Throughflow (see graphic, below).

Schematic currents and location of a leaky garbage patch in the southern Indian Ocean: Indonesian Throughflow (ITF), Leeuwin Current (LC), South Indian Counter Current (SICC), Agulhas Current (AC).
Author provided

This connection also results in the formation of the Leeuwin Current, a poleward (towards the South Pole) current that flows alongside Australia’s west coast.

As a result, the Southern Indian Ocean has poleward currents on both eastern and western margins of the ocean basin.

Also, the South Indian Counter Current flows eastwards across the entire width of the Southern Indian Ocean, through the centre of the subtropical gyre, from the southern tip of Madagascar to Australia.

The African continent ends at around 35 degrees south, which provides a connection between the southern Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

How to follow that rubbish

In contrast to other ocean basins, the Indian Ocean is under-sampled, with only a few measurements of plastic material available. As technology to remotely track plastics does not yet exist, we need to use indirect ways to determine the fate of plastic in the Indian Ocean.

We used information from more than 22,000 satellite-tracked surface drifting buoys that have been released all over the world’s oceans since 1979. This allowed us to simulate pathways of plastic waste globally, with an emphasis on the Indian Ocean.

Global simulated concentration of floating waste after 50 years.
Mirjam van der Mheen, Author provided

We found that unique characteristics of the Southern Indian Ocean transport floating plastics towards the ocean’s western side, where it leaks past South Africa into the South Atlantic Ocean.

Because of the Asian monsoon system, the southeast trade winds in the Southern Indian Ocean are stronger than the trade winds in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. These strong winds push floating plastic material further to the west in the Southern Indian Ocean than they do in the other oceans.

So the rubbish goes where?

This allows the floating plastic to leak more readily from the Southern Indian Ocean into the South Atlantic Ocean. All these factors contribute to an ill-defined garbage patch in the Southern Indian Ocean.

Simulated concentration of floating waste over 50 years in the Indian Ocean.

In the Northern Indian Ocean our simulations showed there may be an accumulation of waste in the Bay of Bengal.




Read more:
‘Missing plastic’ in the oceans can be found below the surface


It is also likely that floating plastics will ultimately end up on beaches all around the Indian Ocean, transported by the reversing monsoon winds and currents. Which beaches will be most heavily affected is still unclear, and will probably depend on the monsoon season.

Our study shows that the atmospheric and oceanic attributes of the Indian Ocean are different to other ocean basins and that there may not be a concentrated garbage patch. Therefore the mystery of all the missing plastic is even greater in the Indian Ocean.The Conversation

Mirjam van der Mheen, PhD Candidate in Oceanography, University of Western Australia; Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of Coastal Oceanography, University of Western Australia, and Erik van Sebille, Associate Professor in Oceanography and Climate Change, Utrecht University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mercury pollution from decades past may have been re-released by Tasmania’s bushfires



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Tasmania’s fires may have released mercury previously absorbed by trees.
AAP Image

Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Kathryn Allen, University of Melbourne, and Simon Haberle, Australian National University

Tasmania’s bushfires may have resulted in the release of significant amounts of mercury from burnt trees into the atmosphere. Our research shows that industrial mercury pollution from decades past has been locked up in west Tasmanian trees.

Mercury occurs naturally in Earth’s crust. Over the past 200 years, industrial activities have mobilised mercury from the crust and released it into the atmosphere. As a consequence, atmospheric mercury concentrations are now three to four times higher than in the pre-industrialisation era.

Mining is the largest source of the global atmospheric mercury, accounting for 37% of mercury emissions. When Europeans first arrived in Australia, there was, of course, no Environmental Protection Act in place to limit emissions from industrial activities. In western Tasmania, where mining has occurred for more than a century, this meant mercury was being released without control into the local atmosphere until changes in technology, market conditions, and later, regulation, conspired to reduce emissions.




Read more:
Australia emits mercury at double the global average


Because mercury is also very persistent in the environment, past mining activity has generated a reservoir of mercury that could be released to the atmosphere under certain conditions. This is a concern because even small amounts of mercury may be toxic and may cause serious health problems. In particular, mercury can threaten the normal development of a child in utero and early in its life.

Tree rings can reveal past mercury contamination

How much mercury has been released into the Australian environment and when has remained largely unknown. However, in a new study we show how mercury levels in Tasmania have dramatically changed over the past 150 years due to mining practices. Long-lived Huon pine, endemic to western Tasmania, is one of the most efficient bioaccumulators of mercury in the world. This makes it a good proxy for tracking mercury emissions in western Tasmania. If concentrations of mercury in the atmosphere are high in a given year, this can be detected in the annual ring of Huon pine for that year.

Mercury pollution from past mining practices in western Tasmania has left a lasting environmental legacy. The sampled trees contained a significant reservoir of mercury that was taken up during the peak mining period in Queenstown. Changes in mercury concentrations in the annual rings of Huon pine are closely aligned with changes in mining practices in the region.

Increased concentrations coincide with the commencement of pyritic copper smelting in Queenstown in 1896. They peak between 1910 and 1920 when smelting was at its height. In 1922, concentrations begin to decline in parallel with the introduction of a new method to separate and concentrate ores. This method required only one small furnace instead of 11 large ones. In 1934, a new dust-collection apparatus was installed in the smelter’s chimney, coinciding with the further decrease in mercury concentrations in nearby Huon pine.

Temporal tree rings of Huon pine, revealing historical mercury pollution.
Author provided

Toxic elements or compounds taken up by vegetation can also be released back into the local environment. Bushfires that burn trees that have accumulated mercury may release this mercury as vapour, dust or fine ash, potentially exposing people and wildlife to the adverse effects of mercury. It is estimated that bushfires release 210,000kg of mercury into the global atmosphere each year. As these fires become more frequent and ferocious in Australia, mercury concentrations in the atmosphere are likely to increase. Mercury released by bushfires can persist in the atmosphere for a year, allowing for long-distance transportation depending on wind strength and direction. This means that mining activity from over a century ago may have regional implications in the near future. The Tasmanian fires in December-February burned almost 200,000 hectares, including areas around Queenstown.

It is not currently possible to know how much mercury has been released by these recent fires. Our results simply highlight the potential risk and the need to better understand the amount of mercury taken up by vegetation that may one day be released back to the atmosphere via bushfires.

Re-release of historical mercury emissions by bushfires.
Author provided



Read more:
Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again


Although there is no simple way to remove bio-accumulated mercury from trees, the history of mercury contamination recorded in tree rings provides important lessons. Decreased uptake of mercury after upgrades to the Queenstown copper smelter operations demonstrates the positive impact that good management decisions can have on the amount of mercury released into the environment.

To control mercury emissions globally, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has developed the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Its primary goal is to protect human health and the environment from the negative effects of mercury. Australia has signed the convention and but has yet to ratify it. Once ratified, Australia would be required to record sources of mercury and quantify emissions, including those from bushfires.

But to do this, the government must first be able to identify environmental reservoirs of mercury. Our study, the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, shows that the long-lived Huon pine can be used to for this purpose. Further work to determine what other tree species record atmospheric emissions of mercury and other toxic elements in other regions of Australia is required.The Conversation

Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Kathryn Allen, Academic, Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history



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The world urgently needs to move past plastic.
Veronika Meduna

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University

A powerful marriage between the fossil fuel and plastic industries threatens to exacerbate the global plastic pollution crisis. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates the next five years will see a 33-36% surge in global plastics production.

This will undermine all current efforts to manage plastic waste. It is time to stop trying (and failing) to bail out the bathtub. Instead, we need to turn off the tap.




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The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has recognised plastic pollution as a “rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”. An expert group formed last year proposed an international treaty on plastic pollution as the most effective response.

Together with Giulia Carlini, at CIEL, I was part of a 30-strong group of non-governmental organisations within this expert group attending the UNEA summit this week to discuss how we can start making plastic pollution history.

Unfortunately, despite strong statements from developing countries, including the Pacific Island states, a small group of countries stalled negotiations. This effectively turns back the clock on ambitious global action, and leaves us more desperate than ever for a real solution to our plastic problem.

Why we need a treaty

The first step is to reject the many false solutions that pop up in our news feeds.

Recycling is one of those false solutions. The scale of plastic production is too big for recycling alone. Of all the plastics produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% have been recycled. This figure is set to plummet as China and a growing number of developing countries are rejecting plastic waste from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world.

China had been a major destination for Australia and New Zealand’s recyclable waste. China’s shutdown meant Australia lost the market for a third of its plastic waste. It also left New Zealand with 400 tonnes of stockpiled plastic waste last year.

With limited domestic recycling facilities, Australia and New Zealand are seeking new markets. Last year, New Zealand sent about 250,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill, and a further 6,300 tonnes to Malaysia for recycling. But now Malaysia is also rejecting other countries’ hazardous plastic waste.

Sending our platic to Asia is not a solution.
EPA/Diego Azubel, CC BY-SA

Even if we manage to find new plastic recycling markets, there is another problem. Recycling is not as safe as you might think. Flame retardants and other toxins are added to many plastics, and these compounds find a second life when plastics are recycled into new products, including children’s toys.

Plastic-to-energy is a false solution

What about burning plastic waste to generate energy? Think again. Incineration is expensive, can take decades for investors to break even. It is the opposite of a “zero waste” approach and locks countries into a perpetual cycle of producing and importing waste to “feed the beast”. And incineration leaves a legacy of contaminated air, soil, and water.

Producing lower-grade materials from plastic waste (such as roads, fenceposts and park benches) is not the solution either. No matter where we put it, plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks into ever smaller pieces with a greater potential for harm in air, water, soil and marine and freshwater ecosystems.

This is why researchers are paying more attention to the less visible hazards posed when micro (less than 5mm long) and nano (less than 100 nanometres long) sized plastics carry pathogens, invasive species and persistent organic pollutants. They have found that plastics can emit methane contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Tyres wear down into microplastics which find their way into the ocean. When plastics break down to nanoparticles, they are small enough to pass through cell walls. Our clothes release plastic microfibres into water from washing machines.

Plastic is truly global

Plastic pollution moves readily around the globe. It travels through trade, on winds, river and tidal flows, and in the guts of migrating birds and mammals. We don’t always know which toxic chemicals are in them, nor their recycled content. Plastic pollution can end up thousands of kilometres from the source.

This makes plastic pollution a matter of international concern. It cannot be solved solely within national borders or regions. A global, legally binding treaty with clear targets and standards is the real game-changer we urgently need.

The NGO component of UNEA’s expert group recognised an international treaty as the most effective response. The proposed treaty has the potential to capture the full life cycle of plastics by focusing on prevention, right at the top of the waste hierarchy.

The Zero Waste hierarchy.
Zero Waste Europe

These solutions could include restricting the volume of new or “virgin” plastics in products, banning avoidable plastics (such as single-use plastic bags and straws), and curbing the use of toxic additives.




Read more:
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’


More than 90 civil society organisations around the world and a growing number of countries have indicated early support for a treaty. Australia and New Zealand have not.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How much plastic does it take to kill a turtle? Typically just 14 pieces



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Plastic bags, balloons, and rope fragments were among more than 100 pieces of plastic in the gut of a single turtle.
Qamar Schuyler, Author provided

Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, CSIRO; Kathy Ann Townsend, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Qamar Schuyler, CSIRO

We know there is a lot of plastic in the ocean, and that turtles (and other endangered species) are eating it. It is not uncommon to find stranded dead turtles with guts full of plastic.

But we weren’t really sure whether plastic eaten by turtles actually kills them, or if they just happen to have plastic inside them when they die. Another way to look at it would be to ask: how much is too much plastic for turtles?

This is a really important question. Just because there’s a lot of plastic in the ocean, we can’t necessarily presume that animals are dying from eating it. Even if a few animals do, that doesn’t mean that every animal that eats plastic is going to die. If we can estimate how much plastic it takes to kill a turtle, we can start to answer the question of exactly how turtle populations are affected by eating plastic debris.




Read more:
Eight million tonnes of plastic are going into the ocean each year


In our research, published today in Nature Scientific Reports, we looked at nearly 1,000 turtles that had died and washed up on beaches around Australia or were found in nets. About 260 of them we examined ourselves; the others were reported to the Queensland Turtle Stranding Database. We carefully investigated why the turtles died, and for the ones we examined, we counted how many pieces of plastic they had eaten.

Some turtles died of causes that were nothing to do with plastic. They may have been killed by a boat strike, or become entangled in fishing lines or derelict nets. Turtles have even been known to die after accidentally eating a blue-ringed octopus. Others definitely died from eating plastic, with the plastic either puncturing or blocking their gut.

One of the first meals eaten by this sea turtle post-hatchling turned out to be deadly. It died from consuming more than 20 tiny pieces of plastic, many of which were about the same size as a grain of rice.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

Some turtles that were killed by things like boat strikes or fishing nets nevertheless had large amounts of plastic in their guts, despite not having been killed by eating plastic. These turtles allow us to see how much plastic an animal can eat and still be alive and functioning.

The chart below sets out this idea. If an animal drowned in a fishing net, its chance of being killed by plastic is zero – and it falls in the lower left of the graph. If a turtle’s gut was blocked by a plastic bag, its chance of being killed by plastic is 100%, and it’s in the upper right.

The animals that were dead with plastic in their gut, but had other possible causes of death have a chance of death due to plastic somewhere between 0 and 100% – we just don’t know, and they can fall anywhere in the graph. Once we have all the animals in the plot, then we can ask whether we see an increase in the chance of death due to plastic as the amount of plastic in an animal goes up.

Conceptual framework for estimating the probability of death due to plastic debris ingestion. Figure provided by the authors.

We tested this idea using our turtle samples. We looked at the relationship between the likelihood of death due to plastic as determined by a turtle autopsy, and the number of pieces of plastic found inside the animals.

Unsurprisingly, we found that the more plastic pieces a turtle had inside it, the more likely it was to have been killed by plastic. We calculated that for an average-sized turtle (about 45cm long), eating 14 plastic items equates to a 50% chance of being fatal.




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Pristine paradise to rubbish dump: the same Pacific island, 23 years apart


That’s not to say that a turtle can eat 13 pieces of plastic without harm. Even a single piece can potentially kill a turtle. Two of the turtles we studied had eaten just one piece of plastic, which was enough to kill them. In one case, the gut was punctured, and in the other, the soft plastic had clogged the turtle’s gut. Our analyses suggest that a turtle has a 22% chance of dying if it eats just one piece of plastic.

A green sea turtle that died after consuming 13 pieces of soft plastic and balloons, which blocked its gastrointestinal system.
Kathy Townsend

A few other factors also affected the animals’ chance of being killed by plastic. Juveniles eat more debris than adults, and the rate also varies between different turtle species.

Now that we know how much is too much plastic, the next step is to apply this to global estimates of debris ingestion rates by turtles, and figure out just how much of a threat plastic is to endangered sea turtle populations.The Conversation

Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO; Kathy Ann Townsend, Lecturer in Animal Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.