Conservation & Science

Aquariums join forces to combat plastic pollution

Nineteen aquariums across the United States have joined forces in a new Aquarium Conservation Partnership to address one of the gravest threats facing ocean and freshwater animals: plastic pollution.

The partners just launched a nationwide consumer campaign, “In Our Hands,” and made their own business commitment to drive a shift away from single-use plastic among aquarium visitors, in their communities and beyond.

Julie Packard sports a reusable shopping bag.

“The public trusts aquariums to do what’s right for the health of the ocean and for ocean wildlife,” said Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “We’re just beginning to understand the full impacts of ocean plastic pollution on ecosystems, marine life and human health. But we already know enough to say that now is the time to act.”

Aquariums have replaced plastic straws with paper straws. Many also sell reusable glass and metal straws in their gift stores.

Through the “In Our Hands” campaign, the aquariums hope to empower their 20 million visitors, along with millions more people in their communities. The campaign focuses on innovative alternatives, and includes a website that encourages viewers learn more about the growing plastic pollution problem and be a part of the solution.

All 19 partner aquariums are shifting away from single-use plastic in their own operations. As the campaign launches, they’ve already cut out all plastic straws and single-use plastic bags. They have also committed to significantly reduce or eliminate plastic beverage bottles by December 2020, and showcase innovative alternatives to single-use plastic in their facilities.

Walking the talk

“As leaders in aquatic conservation, aquariums are expected to walk their talk, and that’s exactly what this partnership is meant to do,” said National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli. “We are uniquely qualified to set an example for others—in reducing our plastic footprint, encouraging sustainable operating practices, and inspiring hope in a public that is hungry to be part of the solution. We’re right where we should be.”

Plastic debrs collects at the mouth of the Los Angeles River in Long Beach. Globally, an estimated 8.8. million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Photo © Bill McDonald/Algalita Foundation

About 8.8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year worldwide—roughly a dump truck full of plastic every minute of every day. In the United States alone, plastic waste averages more than 200 pounds per person each year. If nothing changes, by 2025 the flow of plastic into the ocean is expected to double.

But it’s not just the ocean that’s affected: Plastic pollution in lakes and rivers has been found at levels as high, or higher, than in oceanic gyres that concentrate plastic trash. Today, there are an estimated one billion plastic particles floating on the surface of Lake Michigan alone.

Masses of plastic each year

The Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater system on the Earth, making up approximately 21 percent of the world’s supply of surface freshwater. Additionally, more than 3,500 species of plants and animals live in the Great Lakes basin.

The surface of Chicago’s Lake Michigan lakefront is littered with debris, including discarded single-use plastic. Courtesy Shedd Aquarium

“Approximately 22 million pounds of plastic flows into the Great Lakes each year. In Lake Michigan alone, it is equivalent to 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with bottles,” said Shedd Aquarium President and CEO Dr. Bridget Coughlin. “Small actions can turn into big solutions, and we believe the 24 million people in the United States who rely on this beautiful, massive resource for their drinking water, jobs and livelihoods want to be part of that wave of change. We look forward to working together in these commitments.”

Partners from coast to coast

The Aquarium Conservation Partnership was first championed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, National Aquarium in Baltimore and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, in collaboration with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Coalition partners are located in 16 states; along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts; bordering the Great Lakes; and in heartland cities far from the shore:

 

Puzzle-maker Melissa & Doug has replaced plastic shrink wrap on its puzzle boxes — an innovation that grew out of its collaboration with aquarium retail partner Service Systems Associates. Photo courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium

This summer, the aquariums will focus on raising awareness and sparking consumer action, and sharing stories that highlight their own successes in cutting back on single-use plastic. They are working with business partners and vendors to design alternative products and materials—finding ways to use less plastic packaging in gift store items, and scaling back on single-use plastic in their cafes and restaurants.

The aquariums are using their collective voice—at the local, state and national levels—to support policies that reduce the flow of plastic pollution into the ocean, rivers and lakes. Beyond sponsoring clean-up events and education programs, many have backed successful efforts to stem the use of plastic shopping bags and microbeads found in personal care products.

“By using our voice with visitors our and in our communities, our collective buying power and our relationships with our vendors, we can make a big difference on a pressing issue that threatens the health of wildlife in the ocean, lakes and rivers,” said Julie Packard.

“The solution to plastic pollution is in our hands.”

Learn more about what you can do to help solve the plastic pollution problem.

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