Plastic products are a part of our everyday lives. Although some uses are beneficial, when one stops to think about the amount of unnecessary plastic we use each day, it really adds up! Bags, beverage bottles, straws, tableware, packaging, and other ordinary household products – it seems impossible to envision a world without it. But plastic has also become a problem—especially for marine life. Approximately 60% of the world’s litter is plastic and almost 10% of that ends up in the ocean.
Current estimates note our oceans could someday contain more plastic than fish if we don’t act now. The hundreds-of-miles long “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” continues to grow. The Arctic- an area with little human life- has been found to have 38-234 microplastic particles per m3. Plastics in the ocean, in addition to containing toxic chemicals, have many direct effects on marine life, primarily through ingestion and entanglement. A study released in 2014 by UNEP suggests that biological and ecological effects of plastics in the ocean could lead to economic damage of $13 billion each year.
That’s why, this World Oceans Day on June 8, our members are joining the call to prevent plastic pollution and encourage solutions for a healthy ocean. AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos are working to educate the public on the effects plastics in the ocean have on the animals who live there, as well as suggesting solutions to eliminate plastic waste in our daily lives.
Here are a few highlights of what our members are working on:
• Through the “In Our Hands” campaign, AZA and 21 AZA-accredited aquariums have pledged a long-term commitment to phase out plastics and provide alternatives: Monterey Bay Aquarium, John G. Shedd Aquarium, National Aquarium, Alaska SeaLife Center, Aquarium of the Bay, Aquarium of the Pacific, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, California Academy of Science's Steinhart Aquarium, The Florida Aquarium, New England Aquarium, Newport Aquarium, North Carolina Aquariums (Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, and Roanoke Island), Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Seattle Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, South Carolina Aquarium, Tennessee Aquarium, Texas State Aquarium, Virginia Aquarium, and New York Aquarium/Wildlife Conservation Society.
• The Wildlife Conservation Society has initiated the “Give A Sip” campaign in New York City, with the hopes of passing legislation that would place a city-wide ban on plastic straws.
• Calgary Zoo and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium kicked off a zoo and aquarium-sponsored Ecochallenge in honor of “Plastic Free July,” an international initiative to reduce and refuse single-use plastics. Both facilities are encouraging their visitors to take part in the online EcoChallenge focused on learning about sustainable practices and alternatives to single-use plastic. Co-sponsored by Houston Zoo, Alaska SeaLife Center, and over 20 other supporting zoos and aquariums, the challenge has now grown to include teams from 25 AZA-accredited facilities and more than 400 individual participants.
• Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, which leads sea lion rescue, plastics research, and cleanup initiatives, has also initiated a #BePlasticWise social media campaign encouraging guests to “break their plastic pattern” and protect the world’s oceans.
• Tulsa Zoo has committed to a year-round Plastic Pledge, and has switched to reusable shopping bags and reusable cups with lids and straws at the gift shop and food service locations. Zoo guests are invited take the Plastic Pledge and to refill the reusable cups, or bring reusable water bottles to the zoo.
• National Aquarium in Baltimore, in addition to eliminating all single-use plastic foodware from its facility, has worked with more than 5,000 volunteers over the last two decades to clean up more than 1 million pieces of litter—removing nearly 80 tons of debris from the shoreline.
• Shedd Aquarium’s #SheddtheStraw campaign has seen incredible success since its launch last year, and more than 120 restaurants have joined the aquarium’s effort to eliminate single-use plastic straws. Most notably, one of Chicago’s Major League Baseball teams – the Chicago White Sox – became the first professional baseball team to stop serving single-use plastic straws at their stadium, keeping more than 215,000 straws from being used in the 2018 baseball season alone.
• AZA members are working closely with their vendors to reduce or eliminate single use plastic from their retail and food operations. For example, AZA commercial member Services Systems Associates (SSA) has been a leader in the effort to reduce packaging materials and is pioneering innovative solutions to straws (including a new strawless, sip lid available at Utah’s Hogle Zoo.)
Through SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction, AZA helps to bring awareness to issues like plastic pollution by addressing the need for healthy oceans. Marine mammals, shorebirds, and large predators are some of those most likely to suffer from entanglement, ingestion, and bioaccumulation. Even corals can ingest plastic! AZA SAFE programs support species most at risk from plastics pollution, including vaquita, sea turtles, African penguins, Atlantic Acropora coral, and sharks and rays.
These are just a few examples of the sustainable initiatives our members undertake to protect wildlife and wild places. Many more of our facilities engage in proactive waste reduction and recycling, ultimately reducing the amount of waste that would otherwise be sent to a landfill. The changes that our aquariums and zoos are making in their daily operations shows it can be done. AZA-facilities are leaders in sustainability and have the ability to educate our guests about the importance of reducing plastic use. If we can make the change, you can too! This World Oceans Day, I hope all will join us in the effort to make sure the ocean never contains more plastic than fish.