“This bag is not a toy” reads the writing on most plastic bags. But animals who find a plastic bag on the beach or in the ocean or in the desert cannot, of course, read. Too often they eat the bag or other plastic item, with fatal results. It’s no wonder that two Supreme Court justices have said that plastic bags are a bigger threat to India’s future — to any of ours — than nuclear weapons.
1) A sperm whale
Scientists have determined that a sperm whale that washed up on the southern coast of Spain had ingested 17 kilograms of plastic waste, most transparent sheeting used to build greenhouses. The 10 meter, 4.5 ton whale had swallowed 59 different types of plastic, including 24 pieces of the transparent sheeting, nine meters of rope, two pieces of hose, two small flower pots and a plastic spray canister, as well as plastic bags.
All of this debris is “typical” of the supplies used in 40,000 hectares of greenhouses in southern Almeria and Granada, regions that have become “Europe’s winter market garden.” Environmentalists say that local riverbeds are often full of plastic debris from the greenhouses. As these are often built right up to the edge of the water, some of the debris also ends up in the ocean.
Only about 1,000 sperm whales (the biggest in the world with teeth) live in the Mediterranean. Many are killed after colliding with ships or being caught in nets — or ingesting the plastic detritus we cast into the sea.
2) More than a million seabirds
As a recent video of a seagull eating a plastic bag terribly revealed, seagulls and others birds eat pieces of plastic, which they mistake for food. It’s a truly fatal error, but one that, given the 300 million tons of plastic floating around in the ocean, too many seabirds are likely to make.
3) A pregnant pit bull and her pups
On March 5, the bodies of five pit bulls were found burning in a trash bag outside a beverage warehouse in Brooklyn. A necropsy analysis by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) revealed that the dogs were already dead before two individuals (recorded on a grainy video) put them into the bag, placed it near a trash heap and set it on fire.
The pregnant pit bull had eaten a plastic object that led to two acute intestinal obstructions. She was, says the New York Times’ City Room blog, cut open, apparently in an attempt to save the puppies. But they had already died at the same time as their mother, according to an ASPCA spokesperson.
4) Cows in India
Up to 60 kilograms of plastic bags have been found in the stomachs of cows in India. Not only do the bags choke the animals’ stomachs but plastic residues than enter the human food chain through dairy and other products. The Indian capital city of Delhi banned all plastic bags in 2009; last year, it also banned the use of plastic wrappers on magazines and other items and “all use, sale and manufacture of plastic bags in the city.”
Studies of U.S. and U.K. waters have found that fish have ingested plastic. In some cases, the plastic is eaten by smaller fish who are then eaten by larger fisher which humans eat — meaning that you could be eating plastic in your dinner.
Plastic debris has been found in Antarctica and also in the desert. Camels have been found dead after eating plastic bags and other items left behind by travelers and others, as have sheep, goats, cattle and protected species including the Arabian Onyx. Says David Wernery, whose father is the director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, “Most people’s attitude is ‘Just drop it, others are there to pick it up.’”
The deaths of so many animals from plastic are surely a reason to ban single-use plastic bags as some U.S. communities have. But we have a long way to go. In Europe, plastic makes up 80 percent of marine litter while only a quarter of non-disposable plastic is recycled.
Last Thursday, the European Union published a green paper on plastic waste, but it will not be until next year that specific regulatory actions will be initiated. As Finnish MEP Satu Hassi, a Green environment spokesperson, says to the Guardian, the release of the paper is “overshadowed by the delay in anticipated EU legislation on one-use plastic bags” — and certainly by the death of the sperm whale off the waters of southern Spain and so many, too many, other animals.
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