Supermarket products continuing to kill marine animals despite bans

A vet nurse has explained why her work has left her unable to shop at the likes of Coles and Woolworths.

Thin plastic bags have been banned across Australia, and supermarkets have switched to paper. Single-use plastic straws, cutlery and cotton buds are also being axed, so problem solved right?

Not even close.

Libby Hall is a qualified vet nurse, and a major part of her role is treating marine creatures that have swallowed household garbage. To keep track of the problem, she keeps a collection of what she recovers. And she’s so disturbed by the problem she refuses to shop at Australia’s major supermarkets because they continue to stock their shelves with plastic-wrapped fruit, vegetables, and other produce.

“Because of what I see on a daily basis I just can’t shop in those places. But that’s just personal. I try to stick to farmers' markets, go into smaller stores, or buy online,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

Left - supermarket items in a trolley. Right - cucumbers in plastic.
Speaking personally, Libby Hall can't shop at the major supermarkets, because of what she sees doing her day-to-day work. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Plastic bags will harm wildlife for years to come

This week, Libby and the team she manages at Taronga Zoo’s wildlife hospital in Sydney are treating two critically endangered Hawksbill turtles. When this species is brought into care, plastic is nearly always a factor contributing to their illness.

Despite some types of plastic bags being phased out, she sees no change in the number she pulls from the country’s endangered marine turtles.

“It's only very recent that the supermarkets haven’t given away plastic bags, so I don’t think we’re going to get a change in what we see overnight,” she said.

“It’s going to take a very long time for change to occur. A lot of the fast-food stores also need to look at their production.”

Libby Hall standing behind her plastic collection.
Libby Hall collects hundreds of plastic fragments that are excreted by sick marine life. Source: Taronga Conservation Society

Trillions of plastic pieces litter the oceans

The problem with plastics is they never disappear, they just break down into smaller fragments, and it’s believed between 171 and 358 trillion plastic particles now litter our oceans.

Marine creatures great and small mistake plastic for food, so the substance impacts every level of the food chain, including humans who eat fish.

“Even a tiny hatchling green turtle that could easily fit in the palm of my hand was pooing micro plastics for six days after arrival,” Libby said.

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Fishing line and hooks a major problem for wildlife

Of course it’s not just supermarket plastic bags that impact our marine life. If you think you're doing the right thing buying biodegradable bags, you should know they don't degrade in water like they would on land.

Balloons and their strings are also collected in every colour of the rainbow, as are the red tops from soya sauce fish. And hard plastics also find their way into the ocean.

A green turtle with fishing line coming out of its mouth.
Fishing line and hooks continue to be a major killer of Australia's marine life. Source: Taronga Conservation Society

But there’s another common problem the team at Taronga frequently sees impacting birds and turtles.

Fishing line and hooks are a huge issue,” Libby warned.

“People rescue them and bring them into us all the time. We see the problem in seabirds, all waterbirds — so ducks, herons, swans… nearly every pelican and cormorant we see has some sort of fishing hook or line ingestion or injury.”

Sadly, for an animal to be caught by a human so it can be brought into the wildlife hospital for treatment, it’s usually already in an emaciated state.

“I just don’t know how many animals are out there that no one is able to rescue,” she said. “It's a really sad situation.”

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