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Science & Environment

'Choked, Strangled, Drowned’; New Report Documents Gruesome Impacts of Plastic on Marine Life

Nearly 1,800 marine mammals and sea turtles swallowed or became entangled in plastic in U.S. waters in the last decade, according to a new report by the nonprofit conservation group Oceana.

The first-of-its kind report, titled “Choked, Strangled, Drowned: The Plastics Crisis Unfolding in Our Oceans,” found evidence that animals from 40 different species were impacted by plastic, and of those, a whopping 88 percent were species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Many were hurt or killed by everyday household items.

“Bags, balloons, produce bags, plastic sheeting, food wrappers … toothbrushes, dental flossers, sponges, even chairs and buckets were found entangling and being ingested by these animals,” said Kimberly Warner, Oceana senior scientist and lead author of the report. 

About 10 percent of the marine mammals studied were entangled in plastic, while the majority had consumed it, often leading to a catastrophic end. One 2019 case, in particular, stood out to Warner.

“A beaked whale off of the Atlantic coast had ingested a DVD case that lacerated her intestines,” Warner said. “And even though she was struck by a boat, the injuries that she suffered from plastic probably would have killed her in the end.”

The Oceana report represents the first compilation of the harm done by plastics to marine mammals and sea turtles in U.S. waters.

“While there may never be a complete account of the fate of all marine animals impacted by plastic, this report paints a grim picture,” Warner said in the report.  

Scientists estimate that 15 million metric tons of plastic ends up the ocean every year.

“That equates to about two garbage trucks’ worth of plastic entering the ocean every minute,” according to the report. 

The U.S. generates more plastic than any other country in the world, though Americans account for just 4 percent of the global population, according to a 2020 study.

Only 9 percent of all the plastic waste that has been produced has been recycled.

To Warner, it’s now the responsibility of governments and companies to address the problems posed by plastic waste. 

“We need to move to adopt re-use and refill options as solutions to this problem,” she said, “rather than being addicted to the single-use, throwaway lifestyle that we’ve become accustomed to in the last 50 years.”