This month, we’re asking Aquarium visitors and social media followers in California to support the Straws On Request bill—and join the movement to combat ocean plastic pollution. We sat down with Amy Wolfrum, our California Ocean Conservation Policy Manager, to discuss the bill and how it connects to the Aquarium’s larger ocean conservation mission.
UPDATE 9.20.18—We did it! The California Legislature passed the Straws On Request bill, AB 1884, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. Beginning January 1, 2019, dine-in restaurants across the state will provide a plastic straw only to customers who ask for one.
What’s the Straws On Request bill?
California Assembly Bill (AB) 1884, sometimes called the Straws On Request bill, would require that dine-in, full-service restaurants across the state provide straws only when customers ask for them. Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon introduced the bill in response to a growing body of science showing that plastic pollution is a real problem for our planet—especially the ocean.
Why is plastic such a problem for the ocean?
It’s estimated that nearly 9 million U.S. tons of plastic enters the global ocean each year. That’s like dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute! And if people around the world don’t make changes, the rate of plastic flowing into the sea is expected to double by 2025.
Plastic can now be found in almost every marine habitat on Earth—from polar ice to deep ocean trenches. Marine animals are harmed by plastic pollution in two ways: when they accidentally eat it, and when they become entangled in it.
Until now, little has been known about how microplastics move in the ocean. A new paper by our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), just published in the journal Science Advances, shows that filter-feeding animals called giant larvaceans collect and consume microplastic particles in the deep sea.
Larvaceans are transparent tunicates that live in the open sea and capture food in sticky mucus filters. Plastic particles accumulate in the cast-off mucus feeding filters and are passed into the animals’ fecal pellets, which sink rapidly through the water, potentially carrying microplastics to the deep seafloor.
Despite their name, giant larvaceans are less than 10 millimeters (4 inches) long, and look somewhat like transparent tadpoles. Their mucus filters—called “houses” because the larvaceans live inside them—can be more than 1 meter (3 feet) across. These filters trap tiny particles of drifting debris, which the larvacean eats. When a larvacean’s house becomes clogged with debris, the animal abandons the structure and it sinks toward the seafloor.
In early 2016, MBARI Principal Engineer Kakani Katija was planning an experiment using the DeepPIV system to figure out how quickly giant larvaceans could filter seawater, and what size particles they could capture in their filters. Other researchers have tried to answer these questions in the laboratory by placing tiny plastic beads into tanks with smaller larvaceans. Because giant larvacean houses are too big to study in the lab, Kakani decided to perform similar experiments in the open ocean, using MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).