Biodegradable plastic bags – a good solution to protect sea turtles? No.

We just read the following post in a seaturtle listserv in response to a reader who was optimistic about an article she read on a new “biodegradable” plastic bag.

turtle eating plastic...I don’t care how many so-called biodegradable plastic bags are put on the market – the best solution is to bring your own bag. It’s a great habit to get into. I keep a stash of them in my car so they’re always there when I do some shopping. And there are added benefits. I bring my own bag to Trader Joes and each time they enter my name in a weekly drawing for free groceries. Now that’s commitment to the environment on the store’s part, and a darn good incentive for customers!

This listserv post also makes great points that biodegradable bags are not an ideal solution:

Hi Nicole,

There are several plastic bags available in Australia, which purport to be ‘degradable.’ One manufacturer states that their bags break down to ‘bio-mass.’ When I questioned the company on this statement, they declined to reply.

Even if these bags degraded in their predicted ’20 days’ I consider it too long a period. We recently released 4 sea turtles after months of rehabilitation. Three beach-washed again, less than three weeks later, with two eventually dying. The post mortem (PM) examinations suggested that these turtles swallowed plastic pieces, likely within hours of release.

I agree with you, entirely, that responsible attitudes need to prevail, rather than the philosophy of “Here’s a bag which is okay to throw away.”

However, I believe that to link plastic bags with turtle mortality, is too narrow a focus, and tends to detract from other forms of plastic which are equally, and in some cases, far more damaging than plastic bags.

Of many PM examinations we have conducted, we, on the East Coast of Australia, are finding that small pieces of hard plastics are far more common in the stomachs and intestines of sea turtles, than pieces of plastic which may be parts of plastic bags.

In one turtle, for instance, we found 76 pieces of plastic, all were hard pieces likely from plastic containers, buckets, plastic bottles and the like. Another has, so far passed 107 pieces of plastic with only a few pieces being attributable to a plastic bag; one piece is part of a clothes peg.

Check the shelves in your local department store. The volume of plastic packaging and containers far outweighs plastic bags. How, then, can we address this issue? Biodegradibility is really not a feasible option.

Education and responsible attitudes need to emerge.

We are happy to provide the Post Mortem reports (with associated images) to anyone who would like them.

Regards,
Lance Ferris
Australian Seabird Rescue Inc.
(Seaturtle Rescue/Rehab Division) WildlifeLink Sanctuary
264 North Creek Road, Ballina. NSW Australia