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Crisis in the Checkout Line

“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

by Cara Byington, Science Communication Specialist for The Nature Conservancy

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 son gasped in horror and said, under his breath, “Mom, she’s putting our groceries in plastic!”


My first thought is that I have two antsy kids with me who have their hearts set on eating today—but a second later, I find myself thinking about that dead sperm whale I saw on Warderick Wells Cay in The Bahamas.

The connection between the two? 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—comprised of plastic and other trash, bobbing along at the surface, circling in the current.

But 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.

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 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 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 outside the park. 

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 hypocritical of me to say we should stop using plastic all together. I know I don’t want to live in a world without whales, but I’m not sure that I want to live in a world without plastic either. 

There might be ways to compromise. More attention is being put towards manufacturing biodegradable plastics. Plastic bans or taxes are being implemented around the world. As of May 2014, there were 77 countries with plastic bag reduction policies and 133 cities in the United States with anti-plastic bag legislation according to an Earth Policy Institute analysis. And the policies help. The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability found that in just one year after a plastic bag ban was put in place, the use of reusable bags increased by 304%. 

Certainly, this isn’t a silver bullet to solve our plastic addiction, but it is an important move toward a world where my convenience doesn’t come at the direct cost of another creature’s health. 

What Can You Do?

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.

Here are some ideas for how we can all help reduce plastics in the ocean:

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