Joel Sartore at the Tennessee Aquarium

Exterior of the Tennessee Aquairum, River Journey, entrance, with a Joel Sartore photograph of a slider (turtle) at the entrance, people going in.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, recently opened an exhibit featuring the work of award-winning photographer and National Geographic Explorer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark project. They launched the exhibit with an event featuring Joel Sartore and his son Cole Sartore, who presented their story. I was lucky to purchase a ticket to it before they sold out.

National Geographic Photo Ark Logo in black, gray, and yellow on white background.

Orange spotted filefish - aqua and orange spotted - against a white background.
Orange spotted filefish, Oxymonacanthus longirostris, at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska, 2013. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.
Close up of an octopus, viewpoint looking underneath the creature, viewing its red tentacles and white suckers.
An octopus, Octopoda, at Dallas World Aquarium, Texas, 2013. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.

What is the National Geographic Photo Ark?

“The Photo Ark uses the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.

“The interaction between animals and their environments is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. When you remove one, it affects us all.

“The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multiyear effort to raise awareness of and find solutions to some of the most pressing issues affecting wildlife and their habitats. The Photo Ark’s three-pronged approach harnesses the power of National Geographic photography and the bold ideas of our explorers. Led by National Geographic Explorer and photographer Joel Sartore, the project aims to document every species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, inspire action through education, and help save wildlife by supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts.”1

“I want to get people to care, to fall in love, and to take action.” -Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore with frill necked lizard, Chlamydosaurus kingii, Joel facing the camera, holding his camera, lizard in white photo box.
Joel Sartore with frill-necked lizard, Chlamydosaurus kingii, at a high school in Victoria, Australia, 2017 during a shoot for the National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org. Photo by Douglas Gimesy.

The Photo Ark is the world’s largest collection of animal portraits, documenting species before they disappear. The goal is to get the public to care, while there’s still time. Sartore knows we can save species from extinction. He’s photographed over 15,000 species so far. His goal is to photograph all 25,000 species in captivity in zoos, aquariums, and wildlife sanctuaries around the world. Here’s a short video about his work:

And here’s another video regarding the Photo Ark and the Extinction Crisis:

Lucky Me

I’ve been a big fan of Sartore’s for many years, not just because of his photography but his call for conservation and love for the species we are losing. A few years ago, my spouse even gifted me an autographed copy of Sartore’s National Geographic Photo Basics: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Great Photography. I wrote about Sartore in 2019 when The Photo Ark Vanishing: The World’s Most Vulnerable Animals was first published. I watched a three-episode documentarian PBS series titled Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark with my son when he was 6.

When I heard about this event, I knew the tickets would be limited and sell out quickly. That’s why I say I’m lucky that I got a ticket!

From the emails about the event, I expected to attend a 30-minute talk with Joel Sartore and his son, Cole, and then be able to tour the Aquarium. But the talk lasted for an hour, and it was inspiring! They told funny family stories and the journey of the Photo Ark.

Joel Sartore speaking at bottom right, with a large screen projection featuring a bison.
Photo by Marie Cullis.
Joel and Cole Sartore looking out at an audience, wood paneled background.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

The Tennessee Aquarium Exhibit

After, I got to tour the Aquarium and eat fancy hors d’oeuvres. They served beverages in real glasses and used paper plates and bamboo forks for food. I appreciated this since most places in the Southeast still serve everything in plastic and styrofoam.

Today we are losing species at rates 1,000 times greater than ever before.” -Joel Sartore

I’ve been to the Tennessee Aquarium many times, often with my young son who often flies through exhibits (though this seems to be improving with age). I appreciated the Aquarium more that night, not just because I could linger at my leisure this time, but also because of Sartore’s inspiring words. He called the audience to action in his talk and said that we should find something we are passionate about and do something about it. He said to consider what we can do to help and inspire others to help. I thought I am already doing that! and felt good that I use my website to highlight environmental issues, promote solutions, and inspire others.

There are about two dozen of these large banners of Joel Sartore Photo Ark photography throughout both buildings at the Tennessee Aquarium, and it will run through the end of 2024. You should go see them if you have the opportunity! Here are just a few:

Close up of a southern flying squirrel on a black background.
Southern Flying Squirrel, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Spotted Salamander, black with yellow spots, on white background.
Spotted Salamander, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Close up of a Nashville crayfish, showing head and claws only, on a black background.
Nashville Crayfish, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Macaroni penguin, back facing camera with wings out, white background.
Macaroni Penguin, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.

Other Exhibits

I’m not a professional photographer, but I captured a couple of cool photographs of my own that evening.

Large blue fish, close up of its face.
Photo by Marie Cullis.
Electric eel staring through an aquarium, red with small eyes.
Electric eel. Photo by Marie Cullis

My favorite exhibits at the Tennessee Aquarium are the ones that teach about plastic, pollution, and saving turtles.

Metal bin with plastic trash collected from the Tennessee River. Exhibit text on lime green background.
Exhibit showing plastic trash collected from the Tennessee River at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Exhibit showing human objects in a river basin, includes a car battery, a tire, a cell phone, and other plastic objects.
Exhibit showing human objects in a river basin at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Exhibit on saving turtles, includes exhibit panels, graphics, and interactive monitor.
Exhibit on saving turtles at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I also took photos of a plastic art piece at the Aquarium and added it to my Plastic Art Projects page.

The best part, for me, was that I got to personally meet Joel Sartore just before I left. I shook his hand and told him how much I loved his work. Our conversation was brief but meaningful, and something I’ll always remember.

“This is the best time ever to save species because so many need our help.” -Joel Sartore

Visit the Tennessee Aquarium when you have the chance! Also, please support The Photo Ark! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

red eyed tree frog, bright green skin, orange feet, red eyes, black background.
Red-eyed tree frog, Agalychnis callidryas, photographed in Seattle, Washington, 2011. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.

 

Links:

National Geographic Photo Ark

Joel Sartore

Tennessee Aquarium

Footnote:

Tennessee River Clean-Up!

Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River, water in foreground and hills at center. Bridge at left. Cloudless blue sky at top.
Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River on the day of the clean-up. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Last year, I read the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers by Chad Pregracke. It was about Living Lands & Waters, the organization established by the author to clean up trash along rivers. His story was super inspiring, especially because I love to clean up trash (and would even do it for a living if I could make that work). This organization, based out of Illinois along the Mississippi River, performs large-scale river clean-ups. Since 1998, they have worked on 25 rivers in 21 states, and have conducted more than 1,100 community clean-ups.

“[Living Lands & Waters] hosts dozens of community river cleanups each year to help watershed conservation efforts with the assistance of thousands of volunteers of all ages who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty – individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and more!”1

So when I discovered that I could get involved with local clean-ups along the Tennessee River, I was more than excited! I was too late to sign up last fall, but this month, I signed up when an opportunity came up near my area.

This one was hosted by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) in partnership with Living Lands & Waters. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that serves as the first Keep America Beautiful affiliate in the nation to focus solely on a river. Their mission is to educate and inspire people to take care of the Tennessee River and show the impact of trash. Their volunteer cleanups are held along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries, an area spanning seven states!2 

The Experience

I took my family with me. My son enjoyed riding in the boats and meeting people. He really fed off of the energy of the crew, who took time out to make him feel included. I’m proud that he understood why we were there and that he gets why it’s important at such a young age.

My son talking to a crewmember with a dog on a grassy area.
My son making friends with a crewmember of Living Lands & Waters. She had a dog, and he loves dogs, so it was an easy conversation starter. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son cleaning up trash along a river bank, holding a yellow bag, boat at right center background, clear blue sky.
He wasn’t afraid to get into the water and clean up trash along the river banks. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. He is trying to pull it out here.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

It was a gorgeous day on Nickajack Lake! We picked up so much trash – hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam pieces, tires, broken fishing tackle and line, plastic lighters, plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, and many other pieces of broken plastic items. Even a section of a plastic dock and an entire plastic truck bed liner.

One of the participating kids, Cash Daniels, also known as the Conservation Kid (@theconservationkid), was there with his family. Cash is an avid environmentalist and ocean lover. He has organized many river clean-ups and is also a published author and public speaker. I had read about him before and it was cool to meet him and his family.

The volunteers all worked hard, and the crewmembers were like superheroes!

Their leadership and positivity are what struck me most. Both the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the crewmembers of Living Lands & Waters were super positive, highly enthusiastic, hard-working, and obviously happy to be doing this!

Flat bottomed boat on the water with one person and heaps of trash.
Dan Breidenstein from Living Lands & Waters with trash loaded onto his boat. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Two women removing a large tire from the water, a shoreline with logs. A dog crosses a log. Two boats in the background with a man loading trash onto one of them.
Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful with Callie Schaser from Living Lands & Waters, removing a large tire from the water. Photo by Marie Cullis.
People loading trash into a floating boat, background shows lake, land, and bright blue sky.
Loading one of the boats. The black piece in the foreground is the truck bed liner. Photo by Marie Cullis.

By the end of the afternoon, we had loaded two full flat-bottomed boats with trash and debris from just a few shorelines.

Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris.
Full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris. Person with his arm up in the back of the boat.
Second full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

In the end, it was an awesome experience. I recommend that if you’re able and interested, you join a local clean-up in your area. We can all make a difference!

“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community.” -Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful3

Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Our group photo! Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Photo of the second group, courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

Remember, the most important thing you can do right now is to stop using disposable items. Especially those made from plastic. Even when you think you are properly disposing or recycling something, so much of it inevitably makes its way into our landscapes. We have to turn off the tap when it comes to disposable items.

I hope to meet you on a future clean-up! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Hefty EnergyBag Program

Hefty Energy Bag Program Starter Kit with informational card, orange trash bag, and plastic film.
Hefty Energy Bag Program Starter Kit, received October 21, 2022. Photo by me.

In October 2022, I received this Starter Kit in my mailbox (wrapped in plastic film). This program claims to be a solution for recycling all of the non-recyclable plastics that come into our daily lives. Items must be rinsed or cleaned first, of course, and they don’t accept everything. Items they will accept include yogurt containers, Styrofoam or polystyrene take-out containers, plastic packaging, plastic straws, and many others. For a full list please refer to the graphic below. They do not accept items that you can already recycle in your area, such as any plastics #1 and #2. They also do not accept #3 PVC plastics.

Hefty Energy Bag program mailer
Hefty Energy Bag program mailer.

The program admittedly sounded exciting, but over the years of doing this, I’ve learned to be skeptical. With this program, I could now recycle all my non-recyclable plastics with this mostly convenient Hefty EnergyBag Program and honestly, it felt too good to be true. So I started looking into it.  When I first looked up their website, using the QR code from the mailer, they did not include Tennessee – the closest was Atlanta, Georgia.

Screenshot of their locations from Hefty's website
Screenshot of their locations from Hefty’s website, captured on October 23, 2022.

I started by reaching out to them through their Contact Us page and asked why I received the mailer if the program wasn’t available in my area. A week later, they updated their website and responded to me. They said I could take items bagged in the orange bags to our local recycling center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They sent the mailers out just a couple of weeks too early.

How does the program work?

Let’s break this down so we can understand how it works. I follow the order on the company’s mailer. This information is also available on their website.1

Hefty Energy Bag program mailer
Hefty Energy Bag program mailer.

#1: “Consumers must purchase Hefty EnergyBag product.”

The bags, which you must purchase at your own cost, cost about $10.49 per box of 26. This amounts to under $0.41 per bag. Seems cheap, but when compared to Hefty Strong Tall Kitchen Drawstring Trash Bags in the same size (13 Gallon ), those are about $0.18 per bag. That means these special orange bags are more than double the cost of regular trash bags. So right at the beginning, the company is shifting the cost to the consumers. Hefty makes many plastic products that you’re already paying for, so why aren’t they covering the cost of the bags if they really want to do the right thing?

#2: “Hard-to-recycle plastics get collected in the bag.”

Consumers are once again given the responsibility of not only collecting all the items into the special bags, but also understanding which items are and are not eligible.

#3: “Full tied bags can be dropped off at any of the designated recycling centers in the area.”

It refers to their website for locations. The bags are not collected curbside; they must be dropped off at a designated place. Where I live, I must take the bags to the recycling center. I’m not sure of the reason for this. While some people will participate, many residents won’t recycle anything unless it is picked up curbside. 

#4: “The normal recycling truck collects and delivers the bags to a local Recycling Facility (MRF) as a part of normal service.”

This statement is confusing since it seems like they mean the curbside recycling truck will pick it up as part of the normal service, but it means that the orange bags will be collected at the recycling center on a regular basis and taken to the MRF facility.

Buckhorn Mesa landfill in Arizona, image shows mountain of colorful trash and a bulldozer at top, clear blue sky in background.
Buckhorn Mesa landfill in Arizona, photo by Alan Levine on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

#5: “Bags are sorted at the MRF and sent to a facility for use as valued resources.”

This is where the process gets muddled because our local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) does not ship or sell plastics #3-#7. They landfill those materials. I’ve also read that most MRFs will not open and sort recyclables that are in plastic bags. Will they make an exception for the Hefty EnergyBag Program orange bags? I was curious to know if our local MRF, which is WestRock, has made a commitment to participate in this specific program, and if not, what will they do with the orange bags? I emailed Hefty (Reynolds Consumer Products is the parent company) with the following questions:

1) Your website indicates that these bags go to our local MRF for sorting. However, if our local MRF currently landfills plastics #3-#7, how do we know these items will get used for another purpose and not be landfilled?

2) Do you know if our local MRF is now participating in this Hefty program? Have they made a specific commitment for the Hefty EnergyBag Program?

3) Is it up to each individual MRF to decide what to do with the orange bags?

4) Have the MRFs preselected end-of-life partners (this term was extracted from your 2020 life cycle assessment)?

I wish I could include their response, but unfortunately, I have now sent this request 3 times and still have not received a reply.

More recently, I sent a list of similar questions to our local MRF, WestRock, but I have not yet received a response.2

#6: “The collected plastics can become an energy resource, feedstock for fuels or new products, or ground into smaller pieces to make new plastic building products and plastic lumber.”

Hefty indicates that these plastics can be reused to create energy, lowering our need for petroleum or new fossil fuels. On their website, under their header “PLASTIC WASTE IS MORE VALUABLE THAN YOU THINK,” they advertise that these plastics can be used for the following purposes:

      • Alternative fuel for manufacturing cement, reducing the need for natural resources like coal
      • Aggregate material for concrete blocks, plastic lumber, and other building products
      • New plastic products such as park benches, and Adirondack chairs
      • Feedstocks that can be refined into high-grade fuels or converted back into plastics

I wish plastic waste were actually valuable, because most of the time, it isn’t. Most plastics go to a landfill.

The above information came from a study that Reynolds Consumer Products commissioned, from the Sustainable Solutions Corporation, a company that helps envision and design sustainable solutions for companies. The “intended use of this study is to determine the environmental benefits of alternative end-of-life options currently utilized in the Hefty® EnergyBag® program compared to a traditional trash bag (Flex Bag) sent to landfill.” One of the main goals is “to create a more sustainable future by diverting this waste [from the landfill] and utilizing the material as a valued resource.”3

Full orange trash bag sitting on a street or sidewalk.
Photo from Rawpixel.com (CC0).

Does this mean the Hefty EnergyBag Program is a ploy?

Maybe. Hefty indicates that “the function of the Hefty® EnergyBag® orange bag is to serve as an alternative household waste bag to collect and divert difficult-to-recycle plastics from landfill.”4 A worthy goal, but I don’t know that it is actually happening. They are shifting the cost and effort to the consumer and the MRF. It also sounds like they are allowing the MRF to decide what to do with these items. However, most MRFs cannot sell “hard to recycle” plastics to manufacturers because there is just so much of it and it’s of little value.

In my area, I believe the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) landfills the plastics that the Hefty EnergyBag Program collects. Perhaps that will change soon, and if it does, I will update this article! But it is worth asking your local MRF if they are participating in this program. Be direct and let them know you’ll be spending extra money on these bags and that you’d like to know if they are able to sort and sell or ship the materials.

Marketing (or Greenwashing?)

Hefty wants all of this non-recyclable plastic, including the plastics they manufacture, to stop going to landfills. So they paid for a study showing how these plastics could be used. But they themselves have nothing to do with the recycling or end-of-life use of these plastics. So, Hefty looks like they are doing the right thing, while earning more profits from selling the orange bags. They are not stopping plastic production at the source, even within their own company.

Is this just an excuse to justify the continued production of single-use disposable plastic products?

This is likely just a marketing campaign in order to increase their appearance of sustainability. If Hefty wanted to make a real difference, they would cover the cost of the bags for consumers, and/or cover some of the costs for the MRFs to do the extra collection and sorting. Even more, Hefty could have those plastics sent to them directly and they could reuse them in their own products.

I imagine it will be easy to spot these bright orange bags in landfills 50 years from now.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Book review: Trashlands: A Novel, by Alison Stine

Trashlands: A Novel book coverI typically review only non-fiction books, but this fictional tale hit too close to home and I have to share it with you!

This dystopian novel offers a glimpse into a dark future if we don’t make great changes in our current world. The story takes place decades from now and the remnants of wasted resources and excessive plastic abound. Due to global warming, sea levels rose drastically. Americans constructed levees to keep the rising sea level back but those eventually collapsed and caused the great floods. “After the sea walls would not be rebuilt. The roads would not be repaired. Maps had been redrawn with the oceans farther inland…There were no homes.” The main characters live in Scrappalachia, in “the center of the United States,” an area that “became the great vast orchards of scrap” after the floods. They live in old vehicles or make-shift shacks next to Trashlands, a strip club.

“They followed the plastic tide. After the floods destroyed the coasts, rewrote the maps with more blue, something was in the water that lapped at Ohio and Georgia and Pennsylvania. Plastic. People learned quickly that it was useful. It had to be.”

Few forests and natural areas and bodies of clean water exist, thus animals and wildlife are rare. As one person remarks, “People make everything go extinct.” That statement is striking because it’s sadly true. In reality, we are causing the mass extinction of thousands of species right now. In the book, only the older generation could recall things we take for granted, like running water, the internet, or kids playing in autumn leaves. Books are rare since the floods destroyed many of them. An older man recalled the U.S. postal system, which had stopped gradually:

“Roads had been washed away. There were gas shortages, price gouges. Letters piled up, were lost or stolen. Strikes happened…Hospitals closed just when the stream of patients, their lungs filled with water or smoke, became untenable. Groceries couldn’t keep bottled water, rice, or meat on the shelves. It became more common to see plastic bottles than crops in a field. The ground was too saturated to plant…No one knew to collect the plastic yet. No one knew it was all they would have.

Plastic and trash debris floating in water with fish swimming around it.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

In this future, plastic is a highly valuable resource and people can’t understand why previous generations ever wasted it or discarded it. They struggle to believe that plastic items were once created to be disposable or made for single-use, such as plastic forks. But most plastic had been packaging. One character muses, “What a world that must have been, to have had to protect everything.” A young woman finds what had been a plastic trash can, but didn’t know what it was. Someone older explains that people used to throw stuff away and needed a place to store their ‘trash’ before removing it from their homes.

Plastic drives all aspects of life. ‘Pluckers’ collect and sell plastic waste to factories for little profit in order to survive. The factories reprocess the plastic into plastic bricks and other items. Factory owners sometimes kidnap young children from the poor and force them to work in the factories. Children’s hands are small, which allows them to do a better job at sorting the plastics.

“Yes, people knew that plastic was poison, but they didn’t care. They wanted to make money.”

Junkyard and piles of scrap, incudling a damaged car.
Photo by Evan Demicoli on Unsplash

This novel presents a brilliant concept, an uncertain future drastically changed by the climate crisis. This future is full of sexual assault, rape, and violence. Women live with made-up “families” in order to protect themselves. Some characters feel that women could run the world better than men, and had even come close to doing so at one time.

“[Women] would all do a real fine job of running a world. You know it. I know it. And men know it. That’s why they hold them back.”

I really enjoyed this book and found the perspective really impactful. I hope the world doesn’t come to this! Perhaps we, as a global community, can unite and tackle the effects of climate change. Feel free to comment below on what you thought of the book. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!