Why do turtles eat plastic?

Water-based turtles will eat plastic because they look like jellyfish, a popular food source.
Water-based turtles will eat plastic because they look like jellyfish, a popular food source.

By Stacey Venzel

Aquatic turtles are used to chomping at things floating through the water, which they expect to be food. It wasn’t until humans came along that turtles have had to be careful about which floating objects to chomp.

Litter is causing health problems for many animals not just turtles. In some instances, turtles can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish or get stuck in plastic rings, at times resulting in fatality.

Plastic is particularly dangerous to turtles as it always floats. Of special significance is a plastic bag that billows and changes shape underwater, resembling a jellyfish. While jellyfish are the primary food source for leatherbacks, they are also an occasional tasty treat for a number of other sea turtles. Sadly, the largest leatherback on record washed ashore dead, and a dissection found plastic stuck inside the digestive tract, presumed to be the cause of death.

Six-ringed plastic holders for beverages can cause flipper or body entanglements. If the turtle cannot remove the ring, its body will be cinched together in the region where the ring is because turtles never stop growing. This creates a deformity that could alter the turtle’s swimming potential. Additionally, other floating garbage, like styrofoam, foil, balloons and ropes, can cause harm if accidentally mistaken for a food source or if the object gets twisted around the animal.



Karen Eckert, David Gulko, Sea Turtles: An Ecological Guide (Honolulu, Mutual Publishing, 2004), 22, 95, 111.


Whit Gibbons, Judy Greene, Turtle: The Animal Answer Guide (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 106-107.


Stacey Venzel, “What is the world’s largest turtle?” The Super Fins, September 30, 2015,