February 16

The dangers of plastic bags in the ocean


plastic bags in the oceanPlastic bags in the ocean are the greatest threat to thousands of species of marine life as well as animals on dry land. Responsible for killing about one million birds every year as well as countless species of fish, there is no doubt that plastic bags are one of the most harmful products ever created. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are several dangers of plastic bags in the ocean, both to life underwater and on land, which we will be discussing in this post.

Plastic bags were created as an alternative to paper bags, which were considered harmful to the environment due to the chopping of trees for acquiring pulp. Considered a “revolutionary” product, plastic bags quickly rose to be a more durable, and supposed “eco friendly” alternative to paper bags. However, the dangers of plastic bags were never eminent until the late 20th century, and by that time plastic bags and packaging were no longer considered as an alternative, but a necessity for both consumers and manufacturers.

The primary cause of littering in the oceans

It is estimated that only 1 percent of plastic is actually sent for recycling, whereas the rest ends up in landfills or the ocean. Since plastic is considered to be non-biodegradable, the plastic bags littering the oceans may be floating for decades, piling up one over the other as oceans across the world become the biggest trash can for single-use plastic bags. As plastic bags in the ocean continue to increase, the number of pieces of plastic underwater has estimated to have crossed well over a trillion, with the count rising at an alarming rate.

Increase in deaths among sea turtles

Considered to be one of the longest living creatures in the ocean, sea turtles are at a huge risk of dying due to increasing plastic bags in the ocean. According to an estimation, about half the sea turtles worldwide have ingested or choked on plastic bags at least once in their lifespan, with the number of baby sea turtles increasing in this infamous statistic.

Since baby sea turtles are not as aware of the food they consume as the older ones, they are more susceptible to ingesting and possibly choking on plastic bags floating around in the ocean, causing serious injuries or even death.

The major cause of unnatural deaths among seabirds

Seabirds are an important part of the marine ecosystem, being at the top of the food chain and serving as an important indicator for habitat, food occurrence and abundance, as well as threats to the ecosystem. However, over recent decades several species of seabirds have died from ingesting plastic bags in the ocean.

It is estimated that in the coming years about 99 percent of seabirds around the world would have ingested plastic and plastic bags from the ocean, many of whom would die as a result. Thousands of seabirds every year are washed away on the planet’s beaches, killed by having their stomachs full of plastic bags.

Killer of fish

Plastic bags in the ocean are extremely dangerous to the marine life living underwater. Ingesting several tons of plastic bags each year only in the Northern Pacific ocean, there is no doubt that plastic bags are a greater danger to fish more than any other species in the entire marine ecosystem. Fish ingesting plastic bags is not just a problem for the fish themselves, but also for the consumers of fish, which includes mammals (both land and marine), bigger fish, as well as seabirds.

Several fish have been found having their stomachs clogged with plastic bag fibers suspended in the ocean. Due to being very thin and flexible, plastic bags often get lodged up in the gills of fish as well as airways of marine mammals such as dolphins and whales, causing them to run out of oxygen and die. With hundreds of thousands of fishes dying unnaturally by plastic bags every year, things have certainly taken a turn for the worse.

Photodegrades to form microplastics

Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, but instead photodegrade, breaking them down into smaller microplastics. These microplastics continue to pollute the environment by absorbing toxins, and due to their smaller nature and having a larger surface area, they often create a suspended film that reduces the amount of oxygen entering the water. These microplastics also continue to be hazardous for marine animals, causing indigestion and reducing the urge to eat. As a result, marine life dying by starvation is often found having their stomachs filled with microplastics.

Pollutes the supply of water to communities

Although this isn’t exactly referring to the plastic bags in the ocean, but rather in the streams and rivers that eventually end up polluting the ocean. The rivers and streams are essential for both urban and rural communities in terms of consumption, agriculture, and even manufacturing. Unfortunately, plastic bags polluting the streams and rivers cause a number of problems. 

Firstly, due to photodegradation, the water supply is no longer safe for consumption without proper filtration and treatment. Although this may not seem like a big deal in urban areas, the rural areas especially in third world countries are badly affected as they often do not have access to these treatment facilities. 

Another issue that plastic bags cause in freshwater is that they clog up the supply of water to communities and agricultural land. Unclogging the waterways is not only time-consuming but expensive especially in areas where there is limited access to the necessary tools.

So, how do we save the oceans?

One way you could contribute towards saving the ocean is by reducing the usage of single-use plastic bags and instead opt for eco friendly shopping bags. Replace your plastic bags (and other plastic disposables) with products made from biodegradable plastic or bioplastic, which have a lower carbon footprint than your average plastic products. A good example is the increasingly popular biodegradable garbage bags which are made from sustainable materials such as bamboo and are fully biodegradable. 

However, buying biodegradable plastic or bioplastic products made from more environmentally friendly materials does not mean that we continue littering our oceans. Whether it’s a bag made from sustainable materials or made from plastic; dumping it in the ocean will continue to pollute the environment and harm marine life. Therefore, always dispose of items properly, and recycle as much as possible. Eco friendly products can prove to be very beneficial for the environment, but only if coupled with the right action and responsibility we take ourselves.


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