How Do Those Plastic Rings Get Into The Ocean?

Here are the facts on turtle chokers.

How Do Those Plastic Rings Get Into The Ocean?

Duke Harten

Peanut, a turtle found in a six-pack ring in Missouri in 1993. | Antonio Manaligod/Dose

Here are the facts on ‘turtle chokers.’

Welcome to the Glad You Asked series, a shame-free zone where we tackle topics you’re too embarrassed to ask even your BFF about. Don’t worry, we gotchu

Curious about the efficacy of clipping your six-pack rings, I did some research. If you’re throwing the plastic rings into the trash, I reasoned, there’s little reason for the snipping. How do these things get into the ocean in the first place?

My sleuthing unearthed two sides of the yoke-cutting coin (yes, they’re often called “yokes”). On one, the sentiment that it can’t hurt to do it on the off chance these things reach the sea. On the other, eye-rolling realists who brand the behavior a “feel-good approach to eco-activism” that doesn’t accomplish much.

How plastic sets sail

Maarten Wouters/Getty

My logic put plastic in the trash, trash in the dumpster, and dumpster in the landfill. No risk of rogue seafarers.

The obvious culprit: Debris that falls off cargo ships. That does happen, but not nearly at the rate you’d expect. According to National Geographic, 80% of the ocean’s plastic comes from land-based activities. How? Wasteland Rebel explains, “[Ocean plastic] is trash blown from the streets, trash cans, or landfills into rivers, sewers, or directly into the ocean.” A helpful (if simple) interactive graphic at Plastinography agrees — beach litterers, irresponsible factories, or half-assed waste management all contribute to plastic in the ocean.

How murderous is it?

Fine. I buy that factors beyond our control can transport plastic six-packs from our kitchen trash to the ocean. Does that mean it’s the turtle-choking juggernaut we believe?

Basically, no. According to a 1999 article by Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope,” anecdotal evidence, gruesome photos of ensnared animals and a 1990 book called “Fifty Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth” (in which cutting the plastic six-pack was ranked second) combined to make the yoke pre-Y2K Environmental Enemy #1.

“Gradually the public, and to some extent the media, became convinced that six-pack rings were the primary marine debris problem,” Adams writes in his book, adding that the six-pack-ring threat has been greatly exaggerated.

Of the 10 million items collected during the 1998 cleanup, only a half of one percent (.48%) were six-pack rings, Adams says, citing data from the Center for Marine Conservation.

“Between 1988 and 1998, U.S. cleanups uncovered 1,089 instances of animal entanglement, but only 72 (7 percent) involved six-pack rings. The real offenders were monofilament fishing line, fishhooks, and lures, implicated in 461 cases (42 percent),” he says. “Add in crab and lobster traps, nets, and related equipment, and we find that fishing gear accounts for almost half of all entanglements.”

Gary Bell/Getty

Plenty of sources (like Straight Dope or Grist) point out that decades-old legislation requires all yokes to be photodegradable, meaning they can be decompose by sunlight. They’re designed to float on the surface and break up into brittle pieces incapable of strangling anything. (Whether manufacturers always comply with the legislation is another issue.)

This isn’t to imply that brittle pieces of plastic floating in the ocean is a great thing, either — simply that they aren’t harming fish or birds or turtles in the way most people seem to think.

So is snipping your yokes worth it? “It doesn’t hurt,” says Adams, “but it doesn’t really address the problem either. If you’re enough of a pig to discard plastic on a beach, you probably can’t be bothered to cut it up first.”