Experts Say Plastic Bags Are One of the Biggest Threats to Sea Life. Here's How You Can Help

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Whether you're deciding between a plastic sandwich bag and a reusable container at home, or facing the ubiquitous "paper or plastic?" question at the grocery store, it can be hard to truly know the environmental impact of your decisions. Well, here's one fact that could help drive it home: a 2016 survey of experts found that when it comes to ocean pollution, plastic bags are one of the biggest threats to wildlife. Just imagine how much safer the oceans could be if more people went with the reusable option.

That's No Jellyfish

In 2016, scientists from the Ocean Conservancy and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) published a study in the journal Marine Policy about the biggest pollution threats to ocean wildlife. To come to their conclusions, the scientists used expert elicitation, a process often used to answer questions that are hard to quantify scientifically—like "what's the biggest risk to wildlife?"—where researchers get judgments from experts in that particular domain. Fishing lines and other fishing-related gear ranked as the biggest threat when it came to entanglement, for obvious reasons. But the experts said that plastic bags and plastic utensils posed the biggest risk when it came to ingestion—that is, animals eating the trash.

Why are so many animals mistaking plastic for food? A study published only a month later in Science Advances has an answer: it smells like food. Sea birds eat krill, and krill eat algae. Sea birds know they can find krill when they smell the particular odor of decomposing algae. Algae, unfortunately, love to hang out on plastic bags, so the birds are attracted to the trash in their search for krill. Smell isn't the only reason, however. Plastic can just look plain appetizing if you're, say, a turtle who thinks a floating bag is a jellyfish.

How You Can Help

You may have already known that plastic shopping bags are a big problem, but you may not have realized the impact other types of plastic bags have on the oceans. (How many times have you filled an eco-friendly reusable lunch sack with something in a Ziploc bag?) During 2016's International Coastal Cleanup day, volunteers collected nearly a million plastic bags from coastlines around the world—and 40 percent of them weren't shopping bags.


The good news is that with how many reusable options there are out there, it's easy to adopt more sustainable bag habits. Take resealable sandwich bags, for instance. Instead of using them once and then throwing them out—where they could end up in our waterways and heading out into the ocean—you could use a reusable bag like the ones made by LunchSkins. The quick-drying fabric bags are lined with food-safe (not to mention grease- and moisture-proof) polyurethane, and they've each got a fold-over flap that seals securely with Velcro. Or if you'd rather get a full view of your goodies, there are silicone storage bags, like these ones by Stasher, that have an airtight seal and a microwave-safe construction.

Interested in discovering more eco-friendly household items? Check out The MightyFix, a subscription service from MightyNest that supplies customers with a steady stream of earth-friendly items. Click this link and the code CURIOUSFIX will be automatically applied to your cart, giving you your first month for just $3—a significant discount from the normal price of $10 per month.

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Written by Curiosity Staff June 20, 2017

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