This is why sea life eats plastic (this, and other revelations from the New England Aquarium)

I’m going to assume you’ve seen that video of a straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nose (if you haven’t, and you for some reason want to, here it is).

You’ve probably also seen images of plastic trash floating in the ocean (the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing), waves of waste pummeling our shores, and seabirds caught in garbage… I could go on.

But what you probably haven’t seen is a sea turtle munching down on its lunch.

Myrtle the Sea Turtle

Last month I visited the New England Aquarium for the first time. After climbing the spiral ramp to the top, I was greeted by Myrtle the sea turtle — a majestic (about) 90-year-old female turtle who had been collected from the wild and transferred from an aquarium in Rhode Island.

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Aptly dubbed Queen of the Ocean Tank, the friendly 550 pound turtle peeped in and out of the dozens of viewing holes around the Aquarium’s spiral tank, so that everyone can see her. Luckily, I was there for feeding time.

I watched as the volunteers started throwing lettuce into the top of the tank, and Myrtle swam right toward it, not even stopping to think what she was putting in her mouth.

And then this horrible thought occurred to me — the lettuce looks exactly like a plastic bag, and it’s no wonder so many marine animals mistake plastic for food.

Watch as she goes straight for this lettuce:

Sure, she’s in captivity and she knows it’s her food (and that it’s feeding time). But think about starving marine animals who don’t know the difference between plastic and food in the wild! It’s no wonder so many animals end up with plastic in their stomachs.

While she eats a plethora of things (from veggies like brussels sprouts to marine animals like squid), I couldn’t get the image of a sea turtle chomping down on lettuce out of my head.

No Plastic Here

The New England Aquarium is a plastic free facility, and this gives me hope for many more museums, zoos, and facilities like it.

They don’t sell plastic water bottles — instead, they provide water in aluminum cans (completely recyclable!) called Open Water, and have refillable bottle stations throughout the aquarium. They also only provide straws and lids on request which is a practice more businesses should take into consideration — less plastic waste going into the waste stream!

A Climate Change Education Mecca

The information boards across the countless exhibits at the New England Aquarium also provided amazing information about HOW people can help fight climate change personally, which was an amazing contrast to the usual rhetoric of “we can’t do anything unless it’s enormous change across the entire planet.”

Here are some ways the aquarium suggests you can help fight climate change, which in turn helps conserve the ocean:

  • Choose ocean-friendly seafood
  • Walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation
  • Use fuel-efficient vehicles and energy efficient appliances
  • Support policies that reduce carbon emissions

If you’re looking for ways to help Myrtle and other sea turtles, you can donate to the Ocean Conservancy or the New England Aquarium’s Center for Ocean Life.

You can also take every day actions like reducing your use of plastic, using reusable water bottles when you can, and reducing your carbon emissions! We only have one Earth (and ocean!).

*Update: After tweeting this at the aquarium, they pointed me to this resource, where you can pledge to lower your plastic use! Check it out: https://pledge.ourhands.org/

Why I Love Being a Wild Keeper

I’ve been encouraged not to litter for a long as I can remember.

As kids, we were always encouraged to save food, paper, craft supplies, energy (turning off the lights when you leave a room), water — you name it! — whenever we could. My parents taught us the principles of Leave No Trace while we adventured across the U.S. in our RV, including respecting nature and wildlife, so growing up, this was always a way of life for me.

But clearly, that lifestyle is not everyone’s cup of tea. Everywhere you go, whether it’s a parking lot, a beach, or a hiking trail, especially here in New Jersey, the ground is literally littered with cigarette butts, plastic bottles, and pieces of microtrash as far as the eye can see.

I’ve always tried to pick up trash whenever I could when I visited these places — and people stare me down every time. But when I found the Wild Keepers, I felt like I joined the right community!

The Wild Keepers are a group of volunteers with Keep Nature Wild, a clothing company that is dedicated to “standing for what we stand on” and, well, keeping nature wild through cleanup efforts all over the U.S. They host cleanups themselves in the West where they’re based, but they have groups of Wild Keepers (like me!) who go out on Impact Days and pick up trash, weighing it and submitting it to their waste total to KNW. Every purchase on their site also helps fund & host local wilderness cleanups.

More on their mission:

The collective mission of Keep Nature Wild is to “stand for what we stand on.” We believe that nature was meant to be wild, and it is up to us to keep it that way. We want you to show your local community how you keep it wild, and inspire others to do the same!

So when applications came up, I jumped on the chance! And I’m stoked to be a part of the KNW community and can’t wait for the first official Impact Day next week. I’m bringing a few of my friends out into a park here in North Jersey that gets a lot of trash washed up through a storm drain.

You can participate too! It only takes a few minutes on your walk to your car or through your neighborhood to see how much trash makes its way onto the ground.

My mom taught us this song about saving the Earth:

Use both sides of the paper, you’ll save twice as many trees
Don’t leave the water running, save our lakes and rivers please
Take only what you’ll eat whether it’s cake or lima beans
Let’s help to save the planet so that we can leave in peace

While it may be a children’s song, we can learn a lot from it — leave no trace, clean up after yourself, and maybe we can leave the world a little better than we found it.

We Need to Talk About Recycling

You’re not recycling as much as you think you are.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since the #BanTheStraw debate has been in the forefront of everyone’s mind, but I’ve always been into recycling.

I was always that “recycling nazi” in college who sifted through the trash to pull out that stray plastic cup, yelling at my roommates and putting a list of recyclables on the fridge (now my sister does it). Everywhere I’ve lived, I always separated my papers and plastics according to the rules of my township (thanks Dad). I gave up plastic bottles and bags a long time ago. And I try to bring tupperware and my own cups whenever I can (thanks Mom). I’ve even done research on plastic bag ban trends and written this how-to post on how to give up plastic as much as possible (it’s not as hard as it sounds).

But ever since reading NatGeo’s Plastic or Planet series and this Buzzfeed article on trash cans that aren’t really separated from recycling bins, I’ve started asking around, and we have a serious problem. WE AREN’T RECYCLING AS MUCH AS WE THINK WE ARE.

My sister watches her college staff dump the contents of their recycling bin into the trash can, after her and her roommates take the time to sort our their recyclables. My best friend works at a stadium where they put out recycling bins for the fans, but don’t have the “space” to bring in recycling trucks, so they just throw all the recyclables into the trash cans at the end of the night. On my most recent trip to Starbucks, I took this photo of the trash can — which is recycling? Which is trash? Does it even matter? (Not to mention that Starbucks was just applauded around the world for pledging to cut down on their plastic waste. Clearly not from this store.)

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Another issue in this whole process for homeowners is improper recycling. A lot of neighborhoods and townships participate in single-stream recycling, where everything is sent to one plant and sorted there — but this comes with problems. While mixing paper, plastic, metal, and glass may be convenient for the public, some of these “recyclables” may end up going to the landfill because they’re too small, contaminated, or damaged to be recycled. There’s also this tiny little problem about the international trash crisis we’ve created, but I’ll touch on that another time.

Despite all this, there are things you can do to help cut down your recycling.

To make sure you’re recycling properly at home, check your local township’s website — there should be guidelines there. There’s also this handy EPA guide on how to recycle everything properly — from batteries to tires. And remember — CLEAN YOUR RECYCLABLES before you send them out to the curb.

The best solution would be to use less, and reuse what you do have. To start, take a reusable cup to Starbucks, ditch the straw, bring your reusable bags to the grocery store, and try to cut down on your plastic as much as possible — the planet will thank you.

 

Please, PLEASE, cut down on your plastic use

I am BEGGING YOU. This isn’t a drill anymore — plastic is EVERYWHERE. And it’s a huge problem.

From the National Geographic June 2018 issue:

Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.

No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. Imagine five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, Jambeck says, sitting on every foot of coastline around the world—that would correspond to about 8.8 million tons, her middle-of-the-road estimate of what the ocean gets from us annually. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.

I want to point this specific part out to you: “It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.”

We can only do so much to clean up what’s out there. So here’s what you can do to slow it down:

1. Stop using single use items

We all do it. Even me (hey, I never claimed to be perfect). But we can be better about this. One of most impactful things we can do is STOP USING STRAWS. There’s a great replacement coming to market soon for a traveling, collapsible straw, but in the meantime, just buy straws and take them with you if you have to — or just stop using them. K-Cups are just as bad, if not worse (they could wrap around the planet 10 TIMES). If you have to use them, make your own reusable ones. Buy compostable ones (though, those aren’t that great either). Cut down on your deliverable meal plan boxes, or at least choose one that doesn’t have as much single use plastic. I’ve found that Hello Fresh does the best with this (Blue Apron’s packaging is TERRIBLE for the Earth), so just be aware of what you’re contributing).

Globally, 18 percent of plastic is recycled, up from nearly zero in 1980. Plastic bottles are one of the most widely recycled products. But other items, such as drinking straws, are harder to recycle and often discarded.

I could go on for days about single use plastic bottles and bags, but I’ll spare you. So just don’t use them. Use reusable bags — keep them in your car, in your desk, in your spouses’s car… wherever it takes for you to remember to bring them in the store. Buy reusable produce bags to take with you. And FOR THE LOVE OF THE EARTH, stop buying plastic water bottles.

Meanwhile, ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. Some are harmed visibly—strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings. Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across.

2. RECYCLE EVERYTHING

And if you can’t when you’re out and about, take it home and do it. Make sure you actually can in your recycling bin — check out this list to see if you’re recycling correctly, or your items right to a recycling plant. Also pay attention to HOW to recycle in your town. Do your recyclables need to be washed? If so, rise them (but save water while doing it, ok?). Do your paper products need to be tied with twine? (Mine do, which is strange, but whatever, buy some twine and get it done).

3. Be more conscious about your purchases

Are you about to buy those brussels sprouts already chopped up, sitting in styrofoam, wrapped in plastic? Don’t. That tiny package will have a way bigger impact on our planet than it’s manufactuer ever intended (see that little blurb from NatGeo above), so just think twice before buying unnecessary waste.

If you can disrupt the cycle by not buying plastic at the source, hopefully we can slow down the amount being put back onto the planet.

From National Geographic:

“This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is,” says Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist who has spent more than 25 years working with developing nations on garbage. “We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.” It’s a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems, he says—ideally before the ocean turns, irretrievably and for centuries to come, into a thin soup of plastic.

There are things we can do to help this global problem. So let’s do them.