Curious Kids: How do plastic bags harm our environment and sea life?

Sea turtle eating a plastic bag. from www.shutterstock.com

Curious Kids: How do plastic bags harm our environment and sea life?

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.


My name is Sanuki and I’m 8 years old. I live in Melbourne. My question is how do plastic bags harm our environment and sea life? – Sanuki, age 8, Melbourne.


Good question, Sanuki!

Plastic bags harm marine (and land) environments in a few ways.

Turtles (and other animals) may mistake plastic bags for food. Turtles like to eat jellyfish, and we think turtles eat the plastic bags because they resemble jellyfish.

When turtles eat plastic, it can block their intestinal system (their guts). Therefore, they can no longer eat properly, which can kill them. The plastics in their tummy may also leak chemicals into the turtle. We don’t know whether this causes long term problems for the turtle, but it’s probably not good for them.


Read more: Australian waters polluted by harmful tiny plastics


How plastic impacts the ecosystems

Plastic bags can also smother corals and other seabed communities. When plastic bags end up in our oceans, animals (including seals, dolphins and seabirds) can get tangled up in them. An animal with a plastic bag around its neck will have trouble moving through the water, catching its prey or feeding, and escaping predators.

Plastic can smother seabed and coral, impacting ecosystems. from www.shutterstock.com

On land, plastic bags are an eyesore. They get stuck in trees, along fence lines, or as litter at our parks and beaches.

Many people don’t realise that plastic bags can also cause flooding. Previously in Ghana (in West Africa), plastic bags blocked storm water drains during a big rainstorm. This caused flooding so bad that people were killed.

Making plastic requires a lot of energy and work

Plastic bags can even be harmful before they are used. It takes a lot of resources and energy to create a plastic bag. A key ingredient is oil. As a fossil fuel, oil must be extracted from the ground. Do we want to use fossil fuel resources to make a product that is only used once (we call this a “single use plastic”)?

Many millions of barrels of oil are used to make plastic bags every year. A lot of energy is also used to make and transport plastic bags. It is better for the environment if we reduce our energy use.


Read more: This South Pacific island of rubbish shows why we need to quit our plastic habit


The push towards plastic-free

Lately, lots of people recognise the impacts that plastic bags have, and they are working on alternatives. Many local and state governments have passed plastic bag bans here in Australia, which helps stop the use of single use plastic bags.

In fact, New South Wales is the only state in Australia where you can still get thin, single use plastic bags at the grocery store.

So, remind your parents to bring their reusable cloth bags whenever you go shopping. You just might save a turtle.


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