Plastic shopping bags: Modern-day tumbleweed?

February 04, 2013

Last August, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announced it would remove plastic shopping bags at all its theme parks, establishing it as the largest theme park operator to establish this commitment. Park gift shops will now offer paper bags made from 100% recycled paper or guests can choose to use reusable bags.

This will keep an estimated 4 million plastic bags from entering landfills and the environment each year. SeaWorld stated approximately 1.4 billion tons of trash, including plastic bags, enter the ocean annually. Wildlife such as endangered sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods.

"SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment has a long history of actively supporting sea turtle conservation and rescues hundreds of these animals each year in the wild that have been impacted by human behavior," a SeaWorld spokesperson told PlasticsToday. "This change is natural for us and provides an opportunity to communicate to guests how they, too, can help make a difference for these animals."

SeaWorld hoped that this not only inspire change for the company, but provide a model for the industry overall.

"Eliminating plastic bags is an important statement about our commitment to the environment, as well as the need to help protect marine animals from debris," said Jim Atchison, president and CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. "It also allows our guests to play a direct part in making a difference on our planet."

When it comes to plastic shopping bags and bans, both sides of the argument proudly and loudly shout their opinions. But there is one party without a voice in the debate that could be feeling very real consequences: marine life. 

Relationship between bags and marine mammals

The National Resources Defense Council ( NRDC) claims that we, as a society, treat the oceans like a trash bin, and plastic accounts for 60-80% of marine litter. During the past 25 years, plastic shopping bags represent one of the top items found by International Coastal Cleanup volunteers.

"We're fully aware that plastic bags are not the only form of waste that gets into the ocean," said Leila Monroe, staff attorney for the oceans program at the NRDC. "But there is no denying that it's a lightweight product that is easily blown into storm drains or can get carried into the ocean."

Supporting that statement, there have been multiple documented cases of marine mammals suffering due to plastic  bags. For instance, a shopping plastic bag was blamed for the death of a beached whale in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific Ocean; a gray whale that died after getting stranded on a West Seattle beach and found to have consumed a large amount of garbage, including sweat pants, a golf ball and plastic bags; or the story of a baby otter that got stuck in a plastic bag in Moss Landing Harbor, before eventually getting free.

Many proponents of plastic bag ordinances use stories and pictures of animals in danger to support the case for cities to adopt plastic bag bans. The grassroots campaign Save Our Shores states that, "Communities

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