The Listno. 259

What happens when plastic bags end up in the Chesapeake Bay?

These Chesapeake Bay crabs do not like plastic bags.


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With two separate proposals to tax plastic bags hitting the floor in the Virginia House of Delegates next week—one for a five-cent fee and another for 20 cents—bag tax advocates and opponents are weighing in. Though opponents like to tout plastic recycling efforts, data from the EPA paints a bleak picture: in 2008, just 10 percent of the 3,960,000 tons of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps produced in the U.S. were recycled, with 3,570,000 tons discarded. Plenty of that trash ends up in waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, which drains half of Virginia’s rivers and streams. The List spoke to Chuck Epes of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation about how plastic bags affect the state of the bay.

  1. Plastic bags make up an untold but significant amount of the bay’s pollutants

    During last June’s Clean the Bay Day, volunteers pulled more than four million pounds of debris from the shoreline and waterways. The trash wasn’t categorized formally, but Epes hazards to say that plastics were the most common pollutant. “They’re everywhere,” he says.

  2. Plastic bags look a lot like jellyfish to a sea turtle

    Epes says one of the biggest drawbacks to bags in the bay is that they look like jellyfish to animals. Turtles are particularly vulnerable. “They eat them and ingest them and it causes all kinds of problems for turtles,” he says.

  3. Plastic bags look ugly

    “It’s certainly an unsightly litter,” Epes says. “An aesthetic issue.”

  4. Plastic bags break down and throw the ecosystem out of whack

    Epes says there’s a growing concern over microplastics—the little bits created when the bags begin to break down. The microplastic is ingested by small bay critters, which are then eaten by larger critters, impacting the entire marine food chain.

  5. Plastic bags ensnare wildlife

    “If you take a look around the bay,” says Epes, “it’s not unusual to see a plastic bag in a osprey nest.” Osprey and other birds of prey are easily ensnared by the bags.

  6. Plastic bags in the bay eventually catch up with humans

    It’s not just osprey fans who should worry about bags in the bay. “Everything has its niche in the ecosystem,” Epes says, “and if it’s proving lethal to turtles and other aquatic life, ultimately it contributes to the imbalance of the bay ecosystem. … Therefore, we have fewer crabs, fewer oysters, and a reduced seafood economy.” Bad news, crab lovers.

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