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The Bahamas

Crisis in the Checkout Line

Story Highlights
  • Thousands of animals — especially marine mammals and sea turtles — die every year from ingesting plastic they mistake for food.
  • The skeleton of a sperm whale that died from plastic ingestion is on display in the Bahamas’ Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
  • You can make a difference by using reusable shopping bags instead of plastic each time you shop.
“Plastics aren’t the only problem, just one of the most obvious. All over the world, animals are dying from eating our trash.”

Cara Byington

I did it again today: I forgot to bring my reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. Actually, I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t even think of them until my 10-year-old son gasped in horror and said, under his breath, “Mom, she’s putting our groceries in plastic!”

Crisis.

On one hand, I have two antsy kids with me who really have their hearts set on eating today, so I can’t just leave. On the other hand, there’s that dead sperm whale I saw last fall on Warderick Wells Cay in The Bahamas.

The connection? Sadly, the plastic bags.

Plastics: 1, Marine Mammals: 0

Plastic bags, plastic cups, plastic sheeting, plastic bottles, plastic toys, plastic, plastic, plastic. There’s even a patch of Pacific Ocean — thought to be at least the size of Texas and dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — that is just plastic and other trash, bobbing along at the surface, circling in the current.

Still, plastics aren’t the only problem, just one of the most obvious. All over the world, animals (especially marine mammals and sea turtles) are dying from eating our trash.

  • Last December, seven sperm whales washed up on an Italian beach — all of them dead from plastic (and, let’s be fair, other debris like rope, tin cans and other containers) in their stomachs.
  • In 2008, it was a dead sperm whale near Point Reyes, California. Its stomach contents? An astonishing 450 pounds of fishing net, some kind of mesh, braided rope, plastic bags and one plastic comb.
  • In 2006, scientists reviewed 371 sea turtle necropsies (an autopsy of an animal) since 1968 and discovered that one-third of the turtles had likely died from eating plastic.

Of course, reading about sperm whales dying by eating plastic bags they mistake for squid is one thing. Standing behind the long, white ribs of a once-living whale that died by eating plastic it likely mistook for squid is something else entirely.

Skeleton on the Beach

Every time I see a plastic bag or bottle, I think of that whale skeleton at Warderick Wells Cay in the Bahamas’ Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. From a distance, the skeleton looks a little bit like someone misplaced half a brontosaurus on the beach. The 52-foot sperm whale washed ashore in 1995 after it died from — no suspense here — ingesting plastic garbage.

The Nature Conservancy has been working in Exuma Cays through local partner Bahamas National Trust for a decade, supporting the park's staff in their efforts to build nature trails, conduct research and wildlife inventories and make the park financially self-sufficient. Managed as a no-take marine fishery reserve since 1986, the plants and animals in the park are thriving — but they can’t be protected from what the ocean brings in from the outside.

In its way, the whale skeleton is a profound statement about the unintended consequences and unexpected costs of our way of life. It’s a statement that needs a meaningful response, but it would be disingenuous of me to say we should stop using all plastic. I’m not sure I want to live in a world without plastic and I know I don’t want to live in a world without whales.

But according to Greendex, which follows trends and measures actions people are taking to address some of society’s most pressing concerns, we are making changes.
According to the 2008 survey:

  • The number of consumers who prefer to fix broken items or buy second-hand replacements increased significantly in nearly half of the 17 countries surveyed (Long live Craigslist!).
  • More people are bringing reusable bags when they shop.
  • Additionally, many companies are working on a new generation of biodegradable plastics that break down quickly and don’t release toxic chemicals.

Certainly none of this is a silver bullet to solve our plastic addiction, but it is an important move toward a world where my convenience and safety do not come at the direct cost of another creature’s life or health.

And the Grocery Store Crisis?

That day in the grocery store I did the only thing I could think of: took the groceries out of the plastic bags, stacked them in the cart, paid and left.

I can’t change what was, but I can help change what will be. The reusable shopping bag is such a little thing, but it matters. And every one of us who bring our own bags can know — from this day forward — that none of the plastic shopping bags that find their way to the ocean ever, belonged to us.

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