Conservation & Science

We’re cutting back on single-use plastic

Visitors to Monterey Bay Aquarium come here to experience up-close encounters with amazing ocean animals like color-changing cuttlefishes, playful sea otters and schooling sardines.

Along the way, they might stop for a bite to eat at our cafe and restaurant. On their way out, they might browse our gift and bookstore for something special to take home as a memory of their visit.

We’re working hard to make sure all Aquarium operations support our mission: to inspire conservation of the ocean. One way we’re doing that is by reducing single-use plastics in our facilities, including our dining areas and retail shops managed by Service Systems Associates (SSA).

Marine Debris
Plastic litter pollutes a beach in the northern Hawaiian islands. Photo by NOAA/Claire Fackler

Scientists estimate there are today more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean, from the surface all the way to the bottom of deep submarine canyons. Plastic pollution harms marine wildlife, trashes our communities and is even impacting our health.

The clear solution is to prevent plastic from getting in the ocean in the first place, and we all can help! We can start by avoiding single-use plastic—the stuff we only use once, then throw away.

In the Aquarium Cafe and full-service Cindy’s Waterfront restaurant, we’ve worked to eliminate all plastic straws, plastic wrap, plastic cups and plastic food containers. Cafe customers can fill reusable cups at the soda fountain, or purchase drinks in glass bottles. We also offer Boxed Water, sold in containers made with 74 percent plant-based packaging, and a free  water-bottle refilling station.

Visitors won’t find much single-use plastic in the Aquarium Cafe.

Our culinary team works with produce distributors so fruits and vegetables are delivered in reusable packing crates, and they’ve encouraged neighboring restaurants to do the same. For culinary special events, such as The Party on Oct. 1—featuring more than 60 restaurants, wineries and breweries—we provide reusable or compostable plates, cutlery and beverage containers.

Our retail operations have eliminated single-use plastic carryout bags and instead offer recycled paper bags with a 25 cent charge. Reusable bags are an even better option. We encourage guests to bring their own when they visit, or purchase one of our recycled totes.

In our store, many items are marked as “Green Choices for a Healthy Blue Ocean”. They incorporate environmentally responsible features like recycled, organic, recyclable or reusable materials. And we put a priority on offering gift items created by local artisans, as well as California and U.S.-based manufacturers.

Sometimes these products may be a bit more expensive because of the the added cost of these ocean-friendly features, but Andrew Fischer, SSA’s general manager of merchandising, says Green Choices are popular with Aquarium guests.

“Our visitors support these unique items,” he says. “They understand that their purchases increase the demand for more sustainably manufactured goods.”

Natalia Hurley is working to expand the eco-friendly merchandise in Aquarium gift shops. 

He and his team continue to cut back on single-use plastic packaging. SSA has analyzed every product in our retail shops—more than 3,800 items—and found that fewer than 8 percent are packaged in materials such as plastic shrink wrap or blister packs.

By working directly with distributors, SSA has eliminated styrofoam packing peanuts from most of our product shipments. For those few shipments still delivered packed in styrofoam, we save the packing materials and send them to a special recycling facility.

Natalia Hurley, our assistant manager of guest experience administration, says making these changes isn’t always easy. Manufacturers sometimes resist changing their standard packaging, and biodegradable alternatives often cost more than plastic.

And while we prefer American-made products, there are still too few U.S.-based factories using green materials.

“It’s hard to get both,” Natalia says. “It’s often one or the other.”

A customer browses the Aquarium Bookstore with a reusable bag.

For all the steps we’ve taken to eliminate single-use plastic throughout the Aquarium, we still have a ways to go. Change takes time, trial and error, and an ongoing conversation with our suppliers, our staff—and our guests. We’re asking you to join us on this journey toward a plastic-free ocean.

California voters can take action in another way this November—by voting YES on Proposition 67, the last measure on a long ballot. A YES vote will uphold the first-in-the nation statewide ban on single-use plastic carryout bags, reducing a major source of ocean plastic pollution.

Learn more about what we’re doing to slow the flow of plastic from land to sea, and how you can help, at

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