Have you ever considered how much plastic you use every day? Think about how many single-use plastics you throw away. Single-use plastics are items like plastic straws, lids, utensils, water bottles, shopping bags, etc. that are only used once then thrown away. Most of these plastics are recyclable, but often they end up in landfills where they will take decades to break down. And we aren’t just throwing a piece away here or there. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) notes that a million plastic bottles are purchased every minute around the globe. When these plastics get into the environment, they pose a threat to many species including sea turtles, rays, sharks, and other marine animals.
We don’t all live on the beach, so how do our plastics impact ocean life? Plastics often end up on the ground due to littering or falling out of trash bags. These pieces are washed into local water sources which eventually lead to the ocean. Over time, these items break down into smaller pieces, which are then encountered by sea life. To the animals involved, the plastics often resemble food! For example, one of the main food sources for sea turtles is jelly fish, and plastic bags in the water look similar enough to a jelly fish that the turtle mistakes it for food.
Another big problem comes in the form of tiny plastics. Larger pieces of plastic waste can break down into tiny microplastics over time. These microplastics are less than 5mm in length (a standard US dime is about 18 mm). As with their larger counterparts, microplastics enter waterways and end up in the food chain. Studies have shown that not only do these microplastics impact animals in the food chain, they also impact humans! Microplastic contaminants have recently been found in products such as commercial seafood and drinking water.
Plastic pollution isn’t just a problem for marine animals and oceans. A recent study by the Rochester Institute of Technology showed 22 million pounds of plastic waste end up in the Great Lakes every year. This goes to show there’s plenty we can be doing to protect wildlife right here in Michigan by reducing plastic waste!
At Potter Park Zoo, we have eliminated plastic straws and lids from our food service. Instead, we use biodegradable serving containers and offer biodegradable paper straws for a donation of 25 cents! This 25-cent donation goes directly to our conservation efforts. We have also opted for paper bags in the AniMall Gift Shop in place of plastic, and we have reusable fabric tote bags and reusable water bottles available for purchase!
This Earth Month, we challenge you to ask yourself “What changes can I make in my daily life to help reduce plastic waste?” There are many reusable or eco-friendly options you can use to replace single-use plastics. Some examples are reusable straws, water bottles, bags, and more! Many of these items can be found at your local zoo gift shop! In place of reusable options, you could choose items that are made from biodegradable materials like paper straws and plant-based biodegradable plastics. It only takes a moment to make small changes like asking for paper bags instead of plastic at the grocery store or better yet taking reusable bags with you to the store.
For more information, check out the links below to past Potter Park Zoo blog posts, a plastics FAQ from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), and more! The Earth Day website has a unique tool to calculate how much single use plastic you use in a year!
Potter Park Zoo blog post
Plastics FAQ from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums
How do straws hurt the environment? – Association of Zoos & Aquariums
Earth Day Plastic Calculator
United Nations Environment Program – Beat Plastic Pollution