Pulling plastic off the shelf

Cheers to a clean ocean! At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we’re working to reduce plastic pollution by making changes right here at home.

PMNM - Laysan Albatross 2016 Cleanup
An albatross investigates a plastic toothbrush that washed up on its island—and might look like food. Photo by NOAA / David Slater

Single-use plastic may be convenient for a few minutes. But once it’s out of our hands, it adds to a growing global problem that threatens the health of marine wildlife like fish, turtles and seabirds. These animals can become entangled in plastic trash like six-pack rings, plastic bags and abandoned fishing nets. As the plastic pollution breaks apart into smaller pieces called microplastics, many animals mistakenly ingest it—filling their stomachs with toxic trash instead of needed nutrition.

At the Aquarium, we’re tackling ocean plastic pollution through education, business initiatives and science-based policies. We also took a look around and identified the parts of our own operations where we could cut back on single-use plastics. These changes take creative thinking and ongoing conversations with our suppliers, staff and guests. But through trial and error, we’re making progress.

One year ago, we reported on how we’ve reduced single-use plastic in our cafe, restaurant and gift shops. Since then, we’ve challenged ourselves to go further. Next time you visit, you might spot a few upgrades.

These stainless steel bottles in the Aquarium’s cafe have been sanitized and filled with chilled, filtered water.

A plastic-free beverage case

Let’s start with the substance that defines aquariums: water.

In light of the growing scientific evidence that plastic pollution is harming the ocean animals we love, we stopped selling water in plastic bottles. Our guests, however, let us know they wanted to be able to purchase water during their visits to the Aquarium. We began carrying boxed water, with 74 percent plant-based packaging—but the other 26 percent included plastic. We knew we could do better.

Yogurt parfaits are now made in-house and served in reusable glass jars.

Earlier this year, we removed the boxed water and replaced it with two new products: recyclable aluminum water bottles, and stainless steel reusable bottles filled with filtered water. Guests can replenish them at the water refilling stations on the Aquarium floor.

We also sell teas and sodas in recyclable glass. We’ve replaced plastic yogurt cups with house-made parfaits in canning jars. And we now serve all coffee drinks in reusable mugs, for an ocean-friendly wake-me-up.

Solving the plastic puzzle

These toys feature new packaging with significantly less plastic.

Many of our guests choose to remember their visit with a souvenir from the gift shop—like a plush sea otter to snuggle or a ballcap for the beach. We want these products to be a lasting reminder of our shared responsibility to protect the ocean.

That’s why we’ve been working with our retail and culinary partner, Service Systems Associates (SSA), to minimize the plastic packaging around the products we sell. Less than 7% of our retail items are packaged with single-use plastic; we aim to further reduce this number through 2021.

The manufacturer of these puzzles ditched the plastic cellophane, instead keeping the boxes closed with stickers.

That means reaching out to product manufacturers to discuss alternative packaging—and several have embraced the challenge. One toy maker agreed to change the packaging on 26 items arriving in SSA locations across the country this summer, preventing about 9,000 pounds of single-use plastic waste. Another made the switch from cellophane to stickers to keep its puzzle boxes closed. A third company is developing new packaging to eliminate the plastic casing around its personalized wooden pens.

That’ll come in handy when you sign a postcard from our dazzling Monterey Bay.

Turning the tide on plastic

The latest push to reduce single-use plastic is part of a collective wave. A coalition of 19 U.S. aquariums, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, have joined together to raise public awareness of plastic pollution in freshwater and ocean habitats.

By switching to reusables, we can make a difference for the ocean.

With that effort comes a commitment to reduce single-use plastics within our own walls, starting with bags, straws and beverage bottles.

We all share responsibility for protecting our blue planet. The everyday choices we make, and the products we choose, are opportunities to protect marine wildlife and habitats. Aquariums are working together to make the right decisions easier—driven by the shared belief that the solution to the plastic problem is in our hands.

We hope to prevent more plastic from reaching the ocean, making a healthier home for marine animals like turtles, puffins and sea lions. You can help! Join our aquarium community, say “no thanks” to single-use plastics, and choose reusable alternatives.

Learn how plastic pollution impacts animals, our ocean and us at www.ourhands.org.


11 thoughts on “Pulling plastic off the shelf”

  1. I applaud your efforts aimed at the greater sensitization of global society on the clear and present danger of plastics to marine life.


  2. Most groceries in our area supply semi-reusable plastic SHOPPING bags at nominal cost. Most also, however, supply filmy single-use bags for loose produce or other “non-packaged” items. A dozen such bags might go home with an average cart-load’s worth of shopping. To me that looks like a major source of dangerous thin plastic film into the environment.

    I lived for many years in Europe, where even 60 years ago every shopper carried a tough, truly reusable bag or net (usually of nearly indestructible open meshwork) in which to carry the day’s loot home. Our plastic shopping bags are a joke by comparison (and they prevent ventilation that helps keep some foods fresh on the way home).


  3. Maybe I’m thinking selfishly. But, I’m a germaphobe. I think we need to work on the sanitation aspect of the reusable straws and aluminum reusable bottles, first and foremost, before I am comfortable with these laws.


    1. The California Plastic Pollution Reduction Act that we’re supporting (and asking you to support) does not rely on individuals buying and using reusable straws and bottles. It aims to make businesses take responsibility for the materials they use in their products — and replace polluting, non-recyclable materials with alternatives that WILL be recycled or truly compostable.


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