We are seeing a lot of alarming news for the environment these days. The United Nations recently reported that 1 million species are at risk of extinction, and earlier this year scientists warned our own Tennessee River has one of the highest levels of microplastic pollution ever measured, making it one of the most plastic polluted rivers in the world.

It may seem hopeless, but in reality, the actions of a single person locally can contribute to global change. Their actions contribute to the changes other caring individuals make around the world, protecting the ecosystems that all living things depend upon.

Each individual can make a huge difference a little bit at a time. Here are five easy changes that can go a long way:

Reduce your dependence on Styrofoam

In order to help keep lakes, streams and oceans free of harmful plastics, just say no to Styrofoam food containers at your favorite restaurants or fast food chains. Most Styrofoam particles end up in landfills, and as we are learning, these particles are ingested by animals, humans and fish and are a probable cause of cancer. Styrofoam is also very difficult to recycle. Blount County doesn’t accept it at local recycling centers, and neither does Knox County. A 2016 news report showed that in California, less than 1% of it was recycled.

Styrofoam you use in Tennessee can find its way downstream to become a major ocean contaminant, and Styrofoam is found on the ocean floor in vast amounts. Ocean creatures ingest the particles and it clogs their digestive systems leading to starvation and death. It’s not good for you or the environment.

Bring reusable bags on your shopping trips

It’s hard to believe this one act can make a huge difference, but if more people did it, it would make a huge impact on the environment. According to biologi

caldiversity.org, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year. Many of those bags end up in landfills and the ocean, where animals, like dolphins and sea turtles ingest them, leading to horrific deaths. In fact, a young sperm whale was recently found dead in Sicily with its stomach full of plastic bags. The truth is, according to Waste Management, only 1% of plastic bags are recycled, meaning 100 billion bags are in landfills and the oceans.

I’ve heard so many people say, “Well, I reuse my plastic grocery bags.” But they’re typically talking about using the bags to line trash cans or a similar one-shot use. That means the bag goes from one use to two, but it still ends up in a landfill. Consider using compostable or biodegradable bags for these things instead.

Eat a meat-free meal once a week

Eating a meat-free meal is not only good for you, but it is also good for the planet. Many are trying meatless options at chain restaurants like Blaze Pizza or Moe’s, and local places like Tomato Head, Sunspot and Sanctuary Vegan Café. Eating meatless just once a week has several benefits for you and the planet. Reducing your meat intake lowers your cholesterol levels and helps to prevent heart disease, diabetes and more. In addition, by reducing dependence on factory farming for meat, we can reduce carbon emissions and reduce the need for massive amounts of water for the animals. According to Meatless Monday, 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef.

Reduce your garbage output

While most cities offer some sort of recycling, very little actually ends up being recycled, so what’s a concerned individual to do? Try reducing garbage output by shopping wisely in the first place. Using biodegradable shopping bags is a good start, but there are more ways to help. Use a water bottle that is washable, and ditch the plastic. Try bamboo or metal drinking straws or don’t use straws at all. Tell businesses you frequent that you do not want plastic packaging and prefer biodegradable containers. Moving to zero waste in your personal life is difficult, but it’s getting easier. With companies offering products like shampoo bars and toothpaste bits, consumers can choose to go zero waste without sacrificing health and convenience.

Help prevent mass extinction by living responsibly

The mass extinctions predicted in the UN’s report are frightening, as they could potentially disrupt ecologies and food supplies worldwide. Before you buy, make sure that products like coffee or paper and ingredients like soy or palm oil are sustainably sourced to lower the impacts of deforestation. A little research can help you support companies who are doing the right thing. Other efforts like cutting back on food waste and picking up litter when you see it can also make your life a force for environmental good.

Some of the suggestions above may seem as if they are too small to make a difference, but combined with all the other people who care about our world, it is possible to effect change. Even if you just recycle your clothes and shoes by taking them to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, or your local homeless shelter needing good used clothing, you are reducing your effect on the planet. For more ways to help the planet, check out this infographic from NOAA.

Heather Ripley runs her own Maryville business and is a proponent of making environmentally conscious choices for health, the animals and the planet.

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