Plastic is the most common kind of marine debris in the oceans, with several million tons entering the ocean each year. Marine animals swallow plastic both deliberately when mistaking it for food, but also inadvertently. For example, whales that filter food through baleen may consume small plastic fragments alongside plankton.
Scientists at Oceana accumulated data on the number and species of these animals that had either swallowed or become entangled in plastic over the past decade. Overall, records showed that marine plastic had ensnared or been consumed by 1,800 animals spanning 40 marine species, 88% of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
According to the report’s author and senior scientist at Oceana, Dr. Kimberly Warner, “This report shows a wide range of single-use plastic jeopardizing marine animals … These animals are consuming or being entangled in everything from zip ties and dental floss to those mesh onion bags you see at the grocery store.”
Many common household products are involved in these incidents. Of the plastic items consumed by animals, the most common were bags, balloons, fishing line, plastic sheets, and food wrappers. These items, as well as strings and packing straps, were also frequently responsible for ensnaring the animals.
And, these products can have long-term impacts on the animals’ well-being. Plastic ingestion can permanently damage the organs of marine animals and give them a false sense of feeling full (plastics do not carry any nutritional value). In addition to entangled materials harming animals through lacerations or amputations, debris can also weigh animals down, causing them to drown.
According to Christy Leavitt, Oceana’s plastics campaign director, “Plastic production is expected to quadruple in the coming decades, and if nothing changes, the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean is projected to triple by 2040. The only way to turn off the tap and protect our oceans is for companies to stop producing unnecessary plastic — and that will require national, state and local governments to pass policies ensuring they do.”