The real impact of plastic bag litter is felt on wildlife both in the marine environment and in rural areas.
Tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles are killed every year from plastic bag litter in the marine environment as they often mistake plastic bags for food such as jellyfish.
Plastic bags, once ingested, cannot be digested or passed by an animal so it stays in the gut. Plastic in an animal’s gut can prevent food digestion and can lead to a very slow and painful death.
As plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to break down, once an animal dies and decays after ingesting plastic, the plastic is then freed back into the marine environment to carry on killing other wildlife.
A Bryde’s whale dies after swallowing 6 square metres of plastic
In August 2000, an eight metre Bryde’s whale died soon after becoming stranded on a Cairns beach. An autopsy found that the whale’s stomach was tightly packed with 6 m2 of plastic, including many plastic check-out bags. Such obstructions in animals can cause severe pain, distress and death.
Bryde’s whales, like many other types of whales, feed by swallowing large amounts of water. If the Bryde’s whale had died at sea, it would have decayed, releasing the plastic to kill other marine life for hundreds of years to come.
‘Lucky’ the platypus rescued
In May 2003, a Platypus was rescued from the Don River, Tasmania, after a plastic bag became wrapped around its body, cutting deep into its skin.
The platypus overcame the species’ inherent shyness to approach a person for help.
After seeking medical advice and giving the platypus time to recuperate, it was deemed to be okay and set free. On seeing its injuries, its rescuer and the media called it ‘Lucky.’
‘Pete’ the pelican died after swallowing 17 plastic bags
In 1998, a pelican was found dead in Kiama after eating 17 plastic bags.
The pelican presumably thought the plastic bags were food. The pelican was preserved and named Pete. Since then he has been standing in front of a sign at Fitzroy Falls that informs visitors of how he died and the problems of plastic bags and ocean pollution.
Other wildlife affected by plastic bags
Discovered in agony, a calf that was recently put down in Mudgee NSW, was found to have eaten 8 plastic bags. The loss of this calf cost the farmer around $500.
Birds get caught up in them too. Unable to fly they die of starvation.
Turtles have also been rescued with plastic bags lodged in their throat – and part of the bag hanging out of their mouth.
The turtle pictured on the right was found and rescued by a senior staff member of Melbourne Zoo while they were out doing fieldwork.