Tons of plastic alongside a beachEveryone has their hang-ups, and mine are made of plastic. I will do almost anything to avoid taking home a plastic bag or cup, which can land me in awkward situations – like the time I lugged home 24 cat food cans in an undersized backpack, or the time I canceled a coffee order at the airport because the baristas wouldn’t use my travel mug. Still, I’d rather see just how many library books I can cram into my reusable tote than yield to the temptation of an extra plastic bag.

Why am I so hung up on plastics? I’ve always had my reasons – the energy used to make plastic, the chemicals involved, their eons-long lifespan in landfills – but since I started at Shedd, I’ve learned how plastic trash impacts marine life. Most of those discarded plastic bits and pieces that we see on the streets end up in our watersheds and head out to sea. Marine biologists have found plastic inside the stomachs of seabirds, turtles and even whales. Plus, plastic doesn’t biodegrade in water: it photodegrades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. In some parts of the ocean, the ratio of plastic to plankton is 6:1.

Plastics are a big problem, but the solution lies in little steps. For every person who uses alternatives to plastic bags, containers, and packaging, a little less plastic needs to be produced. When we do have plastic, proper recycling or disposal reduces its impact on marine ecosystems. So, the next time you’re at a coffee shop, bring your own cup. If you’re grocery shopping, stock up on a few extra reusable bags to keep in your car or purse. When all else fails, you can always play the "just how much stuff can I carry in my arms?" game. It’s amazing how much less I buy when I know I have to walk it home!

Posted by Meg Matthews, conservation