Illustration for article titled Sea turtles eat ocean plastic because it smells like food, study finds
Photo: Wide-River-Rick (iStock)

Remember how pop culture and society at large have been warning us for the past 30 years that fish were getting stuck in our plastic six-pack rings? We began dutifully cutting the rings up, and that was that. Wait, no, that wasn’t that at all. Now it’s turtles we have to worry about, and they’re not getting stuck in our plastic—the plastic is getting stuck in them.

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According to CNBC, a new study out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published in Current Biology confirmed that sea turtles are eating harmful plastics in the ocean specifically because these plastics smell like food. UNC-Chapel Hill biologist Kenneth J. Lohmann explained that these findings are the first to confirm that ocean life is drawn to eat plastics because of their odor. “It’s common to find loggerhead turtles with their digestive systems fully or partially blocked because they’ve eaten plastic materials,” Lohmann said.

The study’s methodology involved 15 (temporarily!) captive loggerhead turtles being fed scents through an air tube. Clean plastics didn’t elicit any reaction, but plastics coated in food or ocean smells caused the turtles to raise their heads out of the water to sniff the air. Once turtles in the wild swallow plastics, they can’t regurgitate them, so the damage can often be irreversible. And so as more companies unveil plans to minimize their packaging waste, it’s also worth asking how those corporations might aid the effort to rid the oceans of the trash that’s already there.

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

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