A 2016 survey of experts found that when it comes to ocean pollution, plastic bags are one of the biggest threats to wildlife. Scientists from the Ocean Conservancy and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) published a study in the journal Marine Policy about the biggest pollution threats to ocean wildlife. To come to their conclusions, the scientists used expert elicitation, a process often used to answer questions that are hard to quantify scientifically—like "what's the biggest risk to wildlife?"—where researchers get judgments from experts in that particular domain. Fishing lines and other fishing-related gear ranked as the biggest threat when it came to entanglement, for obvious reasons. But the experts said that plastic bags and plastic utensils posed the biggest risk when it came to ingestion—that is, animals eating the trash.
Why are so many animals mistaking plastic for food? A study published only a month later in Science Advances has an answer: it smells like food. Sea birds eat krill, and krill eat algae. Sea birds know they can find krill when they smell the particular odor of decomposing algae. Algae, unfortunately, love to hang out on plastic bags, so the birds are attracted to the trash in their search for krill. Smell isn't the only reason, however. Plastic can just look plain appetizing if you're, say, a turtle who thinks a floating bag is a jellyfish.
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