A Not-So-Beautiful Ode to Plastic Bags

Marine debris is man-made waste that either directly or indirectly is disposed of in oceans, rivers or other waterways.  Most trash reaches the sea via rivers, and 80 percent of that originates from landfills or other urban sources. In the Florida Keys where we are surrounded by water, a blowing plastic bag has a high likelihood of reaching the ocean within just days, or sometimes immediately. We’ve all seen plastic bags blowing across the bridges as we cross, haven’t we? This waste often ends up in huge ocean gyres, and along coastlines like those in the Florida Keys, that are home to numerous threatened, protected and endangered species.  Plastic bags are consumed by fish, sharks, sea turtles, birds, and can cause life-threatening entanglements to wildlife. In the Florida Keys, we also have the only coral reef in the continental United States; studies indicate that even our reefs are becoming contaminated by plastic bags and the chemicals released by them.

The Worldwatch Institute claims that Americans alone use 100 billion plastic bags per year… Less than 1% of these are recycled.

There are 5 major ocean gyres worldwide or in the world’s oceans. The Pacific Ocean is home to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” an area now twice the size of Texas, extending at least 20 feet down into the water column.  Scientists estimate that for every 2.2 pounds of plankton in this area there are 13.2 pounds of plastic.

Plastic bags choke and entangle wildlife, wrap around boat propellers, and get sucked into boat engines.  Californians Against Waste estimates that plastic marine debris kills over 100,000 sea turtles and marine mammals every year.

All plastic products, including plastic bags, are made from polymers or polymer resin that require oil or natural gas to manufacture. According to the New York Times, the 100 billion bags used per year in America require an estimated 12 million barrels of oil for their production.  Since approximately 25% of plastic bags used in the West are made in Asia, even more fossil fuels have to be used to transport the bags to their destination.

Plastic bag pollution is a global problem in all oceans, and the waters of the Florida Keys are not exempt. Fortunately, we are home to The Turtle Hospital, a rescue/rehab/release sea turtle facility. The Turtle Hospital treats a large number of sea turtles with entanglement injuries and impactions from ingesting plastic bags, although many are too sick to save. Another significant cause of sea turtle mortality are fibropapillomas, large tumors that inhibit a turtle’s ability to see, eat and swim.  These tumors are caused by a virus that often affects internal organ functions.  In Florida, fibropapillomas have become an epidemic.  Scientific studies are trying to determine if human activities on land are related to the development of fibropapilloma tumors.

Plastic bags take 500-1000 years to degrade but they don’t really “go away.” Instead, the plastic eventually breaks down into minute bits of plastic which are ingested by sea turtles and other marine life. As the plastic bags break down, they are releasing toxic chemicals into the water and being ingested by many animals that may eventually find their way into our own food chain and onto our dinner plates.

Video: “Why Plastic Bags are Evil”

Now that you know some of the real impacts of single-use plastic bags, please remember to ask before leaving home or exiting your car… “got your bags?”


Florida Keys Green Living & Energy Education (GLEE)