Stemming the presence of plastic bags in the oceans

Sarah Baulch on Isonomia, 27th March 2015, observes: “True horror lies not in crumbling Gothic graveyards or the trappings of midnight movies but in the disturbing implications of mundane things. Having spent years researching the impacts of marine debris and long hours looking at pictures of creatures with plastic clogging their stomachs, now when I stand in a supermarket queue and see an endless tide of plastic bags flow from the checkouts to the world beyond all I can think about is where those bags are going to end up.

“The plastic bag has become a symbol of our throwaway culture, a visual blight on our landscape littering roadsides, choking waterways and polluting oceans (in which it is just one of many types of marine debris).

“It is a key example of the failure to accord plastic the real value of its negative impacts, which is reflected in wanton consumption and disposal patterns: non-degradable, rarely recycled and of no cost to consumers, plastic bags are widely disposed of after just a few minutes use. What’s more, the very same properties that have made them commercially successful — their low weight and resistance to degradation — contribute to their accumulation in the environment.

“In the UK, the number of plastic bags used by supermarket customers has been rising since 2009, reaching an estimated 8.3 billion in 2013.

Shore thing: large amounts of plastic litter are polluting our oceans and beaches

Shore thing: large amounts of plastic litter are polluting our oceans and beaches.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, via Wikimedia Commons

“Research by Surfrider Europe found that plastic bags were the third most common type of litter on European beaches, lakes and rivers, and it is estimated that 8 billion bags litter Europe every year. Once loose in the marine environment, the impacts on marine life are drastic and troubling as plastics both entangle and are ingested by wildlife, causing disease and death.
“For example, over 90% of dead fulmars that are examined are now found to have plastic in their stomachs, and Ocean Conservancy reports that over the past 25 years, 10% of animals found dead in beach clean-ups were entangled in plastic bags

“An emaciated Cuvier’s beaked whale which stranded on the French coast was found to have ingested 378 plastic items, including seven supermarket plastic bags, and on UK shores another such whale stranded with its stomach blocked with plastic.

“Now there are increasing concerns regarding the impacts of microplastics which, loaded with toxic chemicals, can be ingested by organisms throughout the food chain, from corals and mussels to fish and marine mammals. I’m sure many share my repulsion at the effects our swiftly discarded but irresistibly convenient carrier bags are having in our oceans.

Some may question why our focus should be on banishing plastic bags, since they are not necessarily the most damaging or prevalent litter type. However, the answer is simple: because we can. It is the low-hanging fruit in tackling plastic pollution, and with the success of bans and levies on single-use bags already widely demonstrated it is an effective and achievable first step in addressing the issue of plastic waste.

Source: Isonomia, 27th March 2015. For the full text of this article, see

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