A 1968 study of albatross carcasses found that 90 per cent contained some form of plastic but only two birds had ingested part of a plastic bag.
Professor Geoff Boxshall, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum, said: "I've never seen a bird killed by a plastic bag. Other forms of plastic in the ocean are much more damaging. Only a very small proportion is caused by bags."
Plastic particles known as nurdles, dumped in the sea by industrial companies, form a much greater threat as they can be easily consumed by birds and animals. Many British groups are now questioning whether a ban on bags would cost consumers more than the environmental benefits.
Charlie Mayfield, chairman of retailer John Lewis, said that tackling packaging waste and reducing carbon emissions were far more important goals. "We don't see reducing the use of plastic bags as our biggest priority," he said. "Of all the waste that goes to landfill, 20 percent is household waste and 0.3 percent is plastic bags." John Lewis added that a scheme in Ireland had reduced plastic bag usage, but sales of bin liners had increased 400 percent.
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