New Study Shows Plastic Bags and Packaging Most Lethal to Marine Wildlife

Ocean Pollution – Floating Bags and human plastic waste in the open ocean. 3D illustration.

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

A new study published in the journal Conservation Letters has found that plastic bags and flexible packaging are the most deadly bits of plastic waste in the world’s oceans. From a review of hundreds of scientific articles, the agency found that plastic ingestion was responsible for the deaths of animals across 80 different species. Whales, dolphins, and turtles tended to die from eating plastic film, whereas sea birds were more likely to die from ingesting hard plastic pieces and balloons. 

Why this Matters: In September, a study published in Science suggested that up to 23 metric tons of plastic were deposited in rivers and oceans over 2016. 

We were choking the world’s oceans with plastic pollution before the COVID-19 pandemic but a surge in single-use plastics and PPE along with cuts to municipal recycling programs has caused this waste to skyrocket. According to a recent Oceana report, plastic is becoming the No. 1 killer of the world’s marine life, and it’s within our reach to do something about this (especially if the United States can be a willing participant with other UN nations). 

A Global Effort: Richard Leck, the head of the WWF Australia, told the Guardian that more than 70 countries had so far supported a call for the United Nations to introduce a global treaty to combat plastic pollution, and for countries to reduce, regulate and replace plastic products that are particularly dangerous to ocean wildlife like plastic bags, plastic packaging, plastic sheets, fishing rope, and balloons. In addition, the world needs to take a more aggressive stance on the illegal trade of plastic waste, which contributes to large amounts of plastic being dumped into oceans.

There’s even more urgency to act as the recycling systems that did exist before the pandemic are now at risk of faltering. As Rob Kaplan and Martin Stuchtey wrote for Greenbiz:

“Lockdowns halted more than 80 percent of the recycling value chain in Vietnam, the Philippines and India. By April, more than 45 percent of recycling facilities in the United Kingdom reported disruptions to operations, due to the pandemic response.”

“A Pretty Awful Way to Die”

This CSIRO study analyzed 655 scientific articles about marine debris, and found 79 studies across all continents that found deaths caused from plastic ingestion among various marine megafauna. 

However, not all plastic was equally deadly. The most lethal type of plastic was rubber, though the studies could not find exactly how rubber was making its way into the world’s oceans. The studies also found that flexible plastic — used for plastic bags and packaging — was particularly dangerous, for three reasons: it can get easily stuck in the digestive tracts of various animals, it floats to places where animals naturally feed, and it is very common. 

Dr. Lauren Roman, who led the study, emphasized how deadly plastics are to ocean megafauna to the Guardian: “Death from eating any of these items is not a quick one and it is not likely to be painless,” she said. “It’s a pretty awful way to die.”

Richard Leck reinforced this, telling the Guardian: “It’s important to remember what happens to these animals when they ingest these plastics. It’s a horrible death. When turtles ingest plastic bags they can’t submerge. Marine mammals waste away over weeks and weeks.”


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