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You won’t find a plastic straw in your drink at The Florida Aquarium’s Café Ray or be handed a plastic bag when you check out of its gift shop. This isn’t feel-good environmentalism. The measures are part of a comprehensive Aquarium plan to combat a staggeringly pervasive pollutant – plastics – which poses a particular threat to the ocean.
“Plastics never truly go away,” says Debbi Stone, the Aquarium’s vice president of education. “When they break down, they remain in the environment as microscopic bits. They stay forever.”
Researchers have found approximately 8.8 million tons of plastics flow into the ocean each year, which the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) estimates is equal to one dump truck full of plastics per minute. The ACP is a collaboration of aquariums – including The Florida Aquarium – joining together to promote ocean and freshwater conservation, specifically by reducing plastic pollution in our oceans, lakes and rivers.
Plastic packaging can entangle birds and marine life. Some creatures, particularly jellyfish-eating turtles, ingest the plastic, which can block their digestion system. And when the essentially eternal plastics break down into microscopic bits, their chemical components can taint virtually everything in the water.
“Even plankton eat them,” Stone explains. “They get into the food web and accumulate in animals all the way to the top predators. This is not meant to be eaten.”
A University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences report found that plastics can block the digestive system, and the study noted that animals that “eat too much plastic die of starvation.” And even the tiniest plastic particles can cause harm. The report said studies have found microplastics can “inhibit photosynthesis in microscopic algae,” the base of the food chain. Humans are not exempt from the pollutant. Stone says if you eat seafood, “chances are you are getting some plastic.”
It is not clear how great a threat to human health is posed by the synthetic made from petrochemicals; but the University of Florida study found some potentially toxic chemicals are used in the manufacturing of plastics, and toxins in the marine environment appear to adhere to the “surface of plastics at concentrations one-million times higher than concentrations found in seawater.”
Worrisome stuff, for sure, though no one has documented dire health dangers, and people clearly are not dropping dead across the countryside because of plastics. But it would be foolish and irresponsible to ignore the damage the ubiquitous material can cause, particularly to our waters and marine creatures.
That is why The Florida Aquarium has teamed with 19 other U.S. aquariums as part of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership in an “In Our Hands” campaign to urge visitors and businesses to shift from single-use plastics.
Margo McKnight, senior vice president of conservation, research and husbandry at The Florida Aquarium, detailed the rationale when the effort was launched in July: “By using our voice with visitors and in our communities, our collective buying power and our relationships with our vendors, we can make a big difference on a pressing issue that threatens the health of wildlife in the oceans, lakes and rivers. The solution to plastic pollution is in our hands.”
The Aquarium team, of course, understands progress will be gradual. Plastics are present in everything from toothpaste to cars. No one is trying to demonize those who produce or use plastics, which offer convenience and affordability. The goal, rather, is to make people think about their choices and, when possible, seek alternatives.
Stone, for instance, uses a steel straw and keeps bamboo utensils in her purse. It is a small thing, she knows, but if more people adopted such modest changes, plastic-use would begin to decrease. The “In Our Hands” campaign is particularly targeting use-and-toss plastic products, such as bottles, bags, plates and utensils.
Stone says paper often provides a ready alternative and can be produced sustainably. She acknowledges most American beverage companies do their best to promote recycling. However, Stone notes that recycling programs vary widely by region as well as globally.
In any event, a transition to other options, including aluminum and glass bottles, or even boxed liquids, would benefit the environment.
Many stores already offer reusable shopping bags. The Florida Aquarium store, which eliminated plastic bags earlier this year, is going one better, limiting the plastic packaging that cocoons so many products, often unnecessarily.
The Florida Aquarium staff is “walking the talk;” and only reusable mugs and utensils are allowed in internal meetings. “Sporks” – a metal spoon-fork – are becoming popular among employees. Staffers also seek to limit plastic use in program materials.
Stone said, “We really do see this as part of trying to “Protect and Restore the Blue Planet” (the Aquarium’s vision statement). Stone is under no illusions that society can abandon plastic. Even she concedes she’s not quite ready to give up “shampoo bottles.” Rather, she would like people to join The Florida Aquarium team in simply reflecting on their plastic use.
“It can be a fun challenge to think about what could be used other than plastic,” Stone says. “It is a way, however small, that everybody can get on board in doing something that truly does help the environment.”
By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.