Earth Week 2016: Conserving biodiversity by watching your waste

We’re celebrating Earth Week 2016 with suggestions for how to apply the phrase “Earth Day Every Day” to conserving biodiversity. There are a number of great suggestions for things you can do every day to conserve energy and water; but we asked ourselves, what actions can we take to conserve biodiversity? This week we’ll explore: food production on biodiversity, how plastic consumption impacts biodiversity, creating a biodiversity friendly lawn, and engaging children in nature experiences to foster connections to the environment.

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Today I get to have a rant about one of my bugbears, unnecessary single-use disposable junk!

Litter affects wildlife all over the globe and there is growing evidence that marine wildlife is particularly at risk from our discarded rubbish, with millions of tons of debris entering marine environments every year. Plastics and other debris can kill animals outright, for example by entangling individuals, or blocking or rupturing their digestive tracts, but the presence of toxins can also cause sub-lethal effects, for example by affecting growth and development or reproductive behaviours.

Sea turtles are known to eat marine debris, most commonly plastic, and green and leatherback turtles are the species most likely to be affected. Around 13% of green turtles necropsied in a Brazilian study had died because they had ingested anthropogenic debris.

Other marine animals also suffer. In 2008, approximately 35% of planktivorous fish studied in the North Pacific Central Gyre had plastic in their digestive tracts, while a 2013 study found that plastic had been ingested by 36.5% of fish sampled from the English Channel.

Between 2003 and 2007, 95% of North Sea fulmars sampled were found to have plastic in their stomachs – on average 35 pieces of plastic each! A recent synthesis of seabird studies conducted between 1962 and 2012, found that 59% of the 135 species for which data were available (and on average and 29% of the individuals of each species), had ingested plastic. Even worse, these data suggest that repeating those studies now would find up to 90% of individuals with plastics in their digestive tracts. The list goes on – plastics and other debris have also been recorded from beaked whales,  humpback whalesmanateessealsdolphins, and zooplankton.

Terrestrial wildlife can also be affected. Turkey vultures consume plastic when they scavenge from garbage bags, desert tortoises have been observed trying to eat balloons and attached ribbons, while a boa constrictor was observed entangled in plastic debris.

I could probably keep going… but  now that you know how harmful rubbish can be, here are three unnecessary items that have huge potential to harm wildlife. If you want to do something to conserve biodiversity, one easy way to start would be to stop buying and using these things.

1. Balloons

Yes, let’s begin with balloons, so you can call me a killjoy right from the start. But hear me out. I know, I know, kids love balloons. I get this. I loved balloons too when I was a kid. I still recall my excitement when my primary school held a balloon race. Each child attached a cardboard tag to a latex balloon, then we launched our balloons skywards. Days or weeks later, the good people who found these balloons mailed the tags back to the school, and we celebrated the children whose balloons had travelled furthest. One boy’s balloon even made it all the way across the Channel to France! So, on the one hand our parents and teachers taught us not to litter, on the other hand, they taught us that it’s ok to litter, just as long as the rubbish is fun, balloon-shaped and floats out of sight. Hmmm.

Then, of course, I grew up and discovered the nasty truth about balloon releases. There is no denying that balloons can kill wildlife: the UK’s Marine Conservation Society says so, the US Fish and Wildlife Service says so, and the Australian Government says so. Some animals, especially marine vertebrates such as turtles, mistake balloons (and other rubbish like plastic shopping bags) for food and eat them. The rubbish can block their intestines and cause slow and painful deaths.

Other animals can become entangled in fragments of burst balloons or the strings attached to them, which may restrict their movements or prevent them from feeding.

So now… now I feel a bit cheated. Cheated because 9 year old Anna who liked balloons also liked turtles and whales and seabirds and nobody told me that balloons could hurt them. And really this is an easy fix. There is no essential service performed by a balloon that could not be performed by something far more wildlife-friendly. Want to entertain kids – play with reusable kites or streamers instead – or BUBBLES! Want to decorate a party – buy or make some reusable bunting, or make origami decorations with the kids. Want to remember a loved one – plant some native trees or flowers, which will also create wildlife habitat. There are more great ideas here.

2. Disposable cups, bottles, lids and plastic drinking straws

Today I conducted a short survey. I walked to my favourite cafe on campus to buy a takeaway chai. Naturally I took my reusable cup with me (I love Keep Cups). Why wouldn’t I? There are several kitchens near my office, so it is easy to wash my cup between uses. Some shops even offer a 50c discount if you take your own cup! But in the 5 minutes of my survey (the time taken to walk into the cafe, order, wait for my chai and then leave) I saw 23 other people who had also ordered takeaway hot drinks. Every single one of them was carrying a single use cardboard cup (most of which are lined with plastic) with a plastic lid.

This is not unusual. Often the only other people I see who take their own cups to University cafes are my ecologist colleagues. But even then, I know that many of my colleagues IN THE ECOLOGY DEPARTMENT buy their daily coffee in a disposable cup. Perhaps most get recycled (although many disposable cups can’t be fully recycled, and remember, the preferred order for action is reduce, reuse, THEN recycle), but I regularly encounter discarded coffee cups, lids, straws and plastic drink bottles along the path as I cycle home from uni, or floating in the nearby lake when I kayak. So there is huge potential for negative environmental impacts, and not just from the waste of energy and resources (including trees) needed to make cups and lids and bottles that are usually discarded within minutes of being used.

I haven’t found a lot of literature on the direct impacts of discarded drinks containers on wildlife (if you know of some studies I’ve missed please share), but I did encounter one study suggesting that sugary residues in disposable paper cups are used by bees as alternative food sources. The bees neglect their duties elsewhere, so plants receive fewer visits by pollinators, while drinks containers can also trap and kill the bees. And don’t even get me started on the pointlessness of waste from disposable water bottles or plastic drinking straws (and why do the bar staff automatically put straws in a woman’s drink, but not a man’s?!?)…

Again, this is another easy fix – depending on your preference, invest in a sturdy, standard-sized, reusable coffee cup (it didn’t take me very long at all to get into the habit of remembering mine each day) or a reusable water bottle. Australians might be interested in Green Music Australia’s BYO Bottle campaign, which aims to phase out single-use water bottles from music festivals.

3. Excessive packaging

Most of the things we buy are packaged, but many are over-packaged and many don’t really need to be packaged at all. I mean seriously, I just discovered there is such a thing as individually-wrapped prunes!!!

Over-packaging affects biodiversity in two ways. First, as I’ve described above, the world’s oceans are full of plastic rubbish which can harm or kill wildlife. Most plastic is now thought to enter the oceans from terrestrial sources. So although you might be a long way from the ocean, perhaps your rubbish isn’t. Likewise, on land you don’t have to look far to find a discarded food wrapper. Second, over-packaging is a climate problem, because the production of unnecessary packing materials adds to demands for energy and resources (which can destroy wildlife habitats) and increases carbon emissions (which contribute to climate change).

As consumers, we can exercise a lot of choice in what we buy, and this includes the way our purchases are packaged. Yesterday, Emily focused on avoiding food products that have detrimental impacts on wildlife. Today I’m also suggesting that you consider food packaging when you shop. Sometimes packaging is important for product preservation or integrity, but I get really cranky when I’m confronted with fresh fruit and vegetables encased in polystyrene or swathed in plastic wrap for absolutely no good reason. Sure, you need a container to hold your blueberries, but do we really need shrink-wrapped peas or chillies? A couple of weeks ago my local fresh food market was selling packs of lemons wrapped in a protective plastic layer, right next to the big tub of cheaper unpackaged lemons. Pre-packaged, pre-weighed and pre-priced fruits might help the retailer, but I now refuse to buy foods that come with unnecessary packaging and I try to take the time to explain to the shop staff why they’ve just lost my custom.

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