How plastic bags are hurting turtles

This week, starting on August 1st, Chicago put into effect a citywide ban on plastic bags.

This ordinance affects every chain store in the city that sells “perishable or non-perishable” goods—food, clothes, knick-knacks, etc.—meaning that stores like Jewel-Osco, Target, and Walgreens can no longer give out plastic bags for free. If a customer comes to the store and has forgotten to bring his or her own bag, he or she can buy a reusable bag from the retailer.

Say to goodbye to THESE, Chicago!

Say to goodbye to THESE, Chicago!

Of course, I’m really excited about this ban. It will mean a huge reduction in the number of plastic bags that are produced and constantly given away, and I hope it will mean that people get more used to always carrying a reusable bag with them (this goes for me, too…even in the midst of trying to live plastic-free, I constantly forget to carry along my red re-usable bag!).

Although it seems like this ban is a positive thing, and could make a really large positive environmental impact, there’s already been a lot of negative press about it. I’ve seen headlines from the Chicago Tribune that read “Chicago plastic bag ban will do more harm than good” and “Plastic bag ban causes confusion.” Another reads “Unintended Consequences of a Plastic Bag Ban” and discusses how reusing the same bag might make consumers more at risk for E. coli or salmonella (since many people don’t clean out their reusable bags after transporting meat). Yet another reads “Chicago’s Plastic Bag Ban Could Backfire, Environmentalists Warn” and discusses how retailers are now selling or giving away even thicker plastic bags to customers (marketing them as “reusable”) who forgot to bring their own.

There are downsides to this ban, of course. I do agree with the rationale that banning free plastic bags only to give out thicker ones to those who forgot theirs really isn’t solving the larger problem. On this point, I wish Chicago could follow San Francisco’s lead and actually just give up distributing plastic bags entirely. But overall, even considering the downsides, this seems like a really, really good thing to me. I feel it’s an exciting first step in a more sustainable direction.

But it doesn’t feel like the majority of Chicagoans feel the same way as me. Of course, I can’t expect others to be as gung-ho as I am, after all, I am committing my free time to writing a blog about plastic-free life. But these negative headlines and the general lackluster response from the Chicago populace about this ban made me consider that perhaps we don’t know what the harm of plastic really is. Maybe this subdued, slightly grumpy response is due not so much to apathy as it is to a lack of exposure to environmental information. How often do we hear about the specific ways plastic is causing a problem? Honestly, for me, I think I’ve only learned details of plastic’s harm in doing my own independent investigating. It doesn’t feel like an issue that takes priority in our media. Really, how often are we seeing those headlines?

And yet, there are so many reasons why plastic bags are awful. They are rapidly filling up landfills, they cause pollution as they are produced, they make our oceans and beaches ugly, but most of all, they hurt our animals. This is the sticking point for me. Whether or not we care about how our planet looks, we should give a damn about the creatures who share it with us. And I think we should be told about how these animals are affected.


In a study that was published in March of this year, a team of researchers shared their findings after spending four years combing the coastlines of Brazil, collecting the bodies of hundreds of dead “juvenile” turtles. The researchers were looking for evidence that plastic had played a role in causing the deaths of these young turtles.

The researchers found that not only did the ingestion of plastic contribute to turtle death as they’d expected—and that ingestion rates were rising, which also didn’t surprise them—they also found that a very small amount of plastic was capable of causing mortality.

Here’s what they had to say: “we showed that the ingestion of only a small amount of debris was sufficient to lead a juvenile green turtle to death through the blockage of the digestive tract…An amount as small as 0.5 g blocked the digestive tract of two juvenile turtles… Put in perspective, this amount is approximately one-tenth of a typical plastic bag (4–5 g)” (Santos et al. 39).

Even a miniscule portion of a single plastic bag, less than one gram, had caused the death of a few of the observed turtles. The researchers also found that, while many different types of plastic were lodged in the bellies of the deceased turtles, plastic bag debris appeared to be one of the most prevalent: “plastic bags may represent a large amount of the ingested debris, primarily because most of the non-identifiable flexible plastic, which accounted for 41% of all items, were similar to plastic bags” (Santos et al. 39).

Although perhaps we don’t see the impact of this plastic bag ban directly, and while it probably causes us a little extra headache to have to remember our own reusable bag or clean that bag out so we don’t get salmonella, I count it as a victory for our world’s turtles that we passed it. I wish more headlines would reflect this.

Maybe if a turtle’s image was printed on each plastic bag, we might more effectively spread the word about where many of those bags end up after we toss them away.


Santos, Robson Guimarães, et al. “Debris Ingestion By Juvenile Marine Turtles: An Underestimated Problem.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 93.1/2 (2015): 37-43. Environment Complete. Web. 6 Aug. 2015.

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