Plastic is nearly always present in our lives. From candy wrappers to water bottles, there are plastics we use every single day. Unfortunately, many of these products are immediately thrown away, and the waste produced ends up threatening many habitats and the animal and plant species that live in them.
You may not realize this, but every single piece of plastic that has ever been created is still here. Plastic is not biodegradable, so even items we only use for a few minutes, like a plastic fork or grocery bag, last forever. With the growth of plastic production outpacing the development of waste management systems, plastic often makes it into our rivers and oceans killing or harming thousands of species. These plastics can even come back to affect humans, as eating animals which have consumed a large amount of plastic can have negative effects on the health of people who eat them.
The problem of plastic is present everywhere, even here in Tennessee. The Tennessee River has been found to be full of microplastic (aka tiny bits of broken down plastic). In fact, it has 80% more microplastic per square meter than China’s Yangtze River, which is the source of over half of all river-born microplastic entering the ocean.
Microplastic is a huge problem worldwide, as the particles are frequently ingested by marine life making it into the larger food chain, including the fish we eat. So what’s the source of microplastic? It varies around the world, but the microplastic in the Tennessee River is likely a byproduct of decomposition from large plastic waste in our landfills. So what can we do?
Our default solution to plastic waste is often to recycle it, but recycling alone isn't enough to handle the plastic problem. Unfortunately, recycling is more complex than just placing our plastic in a recycling bin, and whether or not the plastic bottle we put into a recycling bin actually gets a new life often depends more on supply and demand than anything else. On top of that, America’s recycling system can break down entirely, leaving our recyclable waste with nowhere to go. Certainly America needs a better overall solution to waste management and recycling, but we as individuals can help too. With 40% of the plastic produced each year considered “single-use,” each of us can help ease the issues with our recycling system by refusing single-use plastics when we can!
This year, Nashville Zoo is asking you to join us for the Plastic Free July EcoChallenge and commit to making small changes in your lifestyle that together with thousands of others nationwide will add up to a HUGE impact. You don't have to go totally plastic-free - just commit to reducing your use of single-use plastics for the month. It could be as simple as not using plastic grocery bags, plastic cutlery, straws, or bottled drinks for a month. You can find more examples of other small changes to make on the EcoChallenge website.
Sign up here to join Nashville Zoo’s staff and other zoo lovers like you in making a commitment to be better consumers this July.