Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

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Our ocean is teeming with marine life...and, sadly, millions of tons of plastic.

Why is Plastic Trash a Problem?

Plastic waste in the ocean isn't a small problem. It's enormous, almost impossible to visualize. Consider this: Every nine minutes, plastic weighing as much as a blue whale (about 300,000 pounds) ends up in the ocean.

Illustration showing plastic debris weighing as much as a blue whale

Plastic is everywhere. We eat and drink from it, make clothes from it and buy products wrapped in it. Once these things become trash, they don't just disappear. Instead, they stick around for hundreds of years in landfills or, worse, in the natural environment.

How does so much plastic make its way to the ocean? Hint: It's not just trash from the beach. It's trash from everywhere. Since 1950, people have discarded more than 6 billion tons of plastic, and only nine percent of that has been recycled.

Even when we dispose of plastic properly, it can blow out of garbage and recycling cans or off hauling trucks to become pollution. Wind, storm drains and rivers can then carry it to the ocean, even from areas hundreds of miles inland.

Scientists estimate up to 90% of seabirds, like this Laysan albatross, have plastic in their stomachs.

What Happens to Plastic Waste in the Ocean?

Once it's in the ocean, plastic never breaks down. It only breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces of microplastic particles. That means something used once or twice can pollute the ocean for generations. Scientists are starting to find plastic in all sorts of strange places — from the ocean's surface to deep submarine trenches; from polar sea ice to tropical reefs.

Recently, a study by the Aquarium and our technology partner, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, documented that microplastic is disturbingly common throughout Monterey Bay, from the ocean's surface to the seafloor.

This is the first study to systematically show the distribution of microplastic particles and how they move throughout the Monterey Bay water column. The study confirmed that small ocean animals are consuming microplastic particles and transporting them to both surface-level and deep-ocean food webs. The study also found that most of the microplastic was from consumer products like plastic water bottles, take-out food containers and product packaging — the everyday stuff we buy, use once and throw away.

Clear tube filled with plastic debris

This might look like a tube filled with junk (and it is), but it's also what scientists found in the stomach of an albatross. It probably goes without saying that lighters, cigar tips, plastic bottle caps and fishing lures aren't part of a healthy diet.

Small animals aren’t the only ones affected. Larger animals, like whales and seabirds, can get tangled in it, and some of them mistake it for food. In fact, scientists estimate up to 90 percent of seabirds have eaten plastic. When their digestive systems get clogged up that way, animals don’t receive the nutrition they need; many die with bellies full of plastic.

Ocean plastic pollution can contain two kinds of chemicals: the stuff added to plastic in the manufacturing process, and pollutants like pesticides in the surrounding seawater, which can stick to the surface of plastic debris. Scientists are working to understand the impacts of these toxins on the ocean food web.

What We're Doing

  • We're reducing the use of plastic in Aquarium operations, including our cafe and retail shops, and stepping up our recycling efforts. There's virtually no single-use plastic in our dining operations or at special events.
  • We communicate with our visitors and social media audiences about the impacts of ocean plastic pollution, and what each of us can do to help solve the problem.
  • Our annual Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit prepares teachers to dive into the issue, and its solutions, with their students, schools and communities.
  • We're working with 20 leading aquariums nationwide for collective action to reduce the sources of ocean plastic pollution. Every aquarium in the partnership has already eliminated single-use plastic bags and straws from their operations, and are phasing out plastic beverage bottles as well.
  • In collaboration with our technology partner, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, we're exploring the impacts of plastic pollution on ocean wildlife and ecosystems.
  • We support policies to reduce plastic production.
    • In 2016, we campaigned for a successful ballot referendum that made California the first state in the nation to ban single-use carryout bags.
    • In 2018, we supported the Straws On Request bill, requiring restaurants across the state to only provide straws to people who specifically ask for them.
    • Locally, we've cheered on several cities that have adopted restrictions on single-use plastic products related to restaurant food packaging.

What You Can Do

With your help, we can make progress toward a plastic-free ocean.

#1 Use less single-use plastic.

It's simple: the less plastic you use, the less will end up in the ocean. Going reusable makes a big impact for the planet!

#2 Encourage businesses and brands that are making the switch.

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool. The more businesses hear from you, the more they will change.

#3 Support policies to reduce single-use plastic.

Local and state governments across the United States, and around the world, are voting on laws to move us toward a more sustainable future. Let them know they have your support!

#4 Be social.

The more we talk about plastic pollution, the more change will happen. Keep the conversation going on Facebook and Twitter, and in your community.

A Whale of a Problem

To demonstrate the size of the problem, the Aquarium built an 82-foot-long blue whale made entirely out of plastic waste that we installed on Crissy Field in San Francisco for six months. It holds the Guinness World Record for the largest recycled plastic sculpture. Meow Wolf, a public benefit arts and entertainment group, purchased the whale and installed it on the campus of Santa Fe Community College.

While the plastic whale is enormous, the world's plastic pollution problem is even bigger. The solution to plastic pollution is in our hands. We can make a difference through the everyday choices we make as consumers, by encouraging businesses to adopt innovative alternatives, and by supporting public policies to reduce single-use plastic.

Watch How the Whale Was Made

Support Monterey Bay Aquarium

When you visit, become a member or donate, you support our work to reduce the sources of ocean plastic pollution. Together, we're making amazing changes for the ocean and the animals that call it home — not just today, but for generations to come.

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