According to a fall 2016 study led by the World Economic Forum, 32 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging generated annually across the globe ends up in waterways and storm drains where it eventually flows into oceans. That rate is the equivalent of a dump truck pouring a load of plastic into the oceans every minute of every day. At that rate, environmentalists have suggested there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050; meanwhile up to $120 billion of value is thrown away.
To that end, 19 aquariums across the U.S. say they are joining forces to raise awareness and push society into finding innovative alternatives to single-use plastics.
The “In Our Hands” initiative aims to educate consumers about a wide range of tactics they can adopt to stop the growth in plastic waste that has occurred worldwide since the early 1960s. Some of the answers include using reusable plastic bottles, taking tote bags on shopping errands and refusing to use disposable straws (face it, you don’t need a straw unless you are under 8 years old or over 90). [Ed note: lipstick-wearers may beg to differ!]
Some of the aquariums participating are the most well-known and respected institutions within this field, including the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Boston’s New England Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium on California’s Central Coast. These aquariums all belong to the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP), the coalition responsible for launching this campaign. All ACP members have eliminated plastic straws and single-use plastic bags from their restaurants and stores; by 2020, they have promised to sharply reduce or even eliminate all plastic beverage bottles while displaying alternatives to single-use plastics within their premises.
While the ongoing discussion over ocean pollution has largely focused on the Pacific Garbage Patch and ideas that could neutralize the problem, other regions of the world are becoming overwhelmed by plastic pollution as well. One of the them is the wider Great Lakes area, which has increasingly become the recipient of both microplastics and fragments of single-use plastic items. A study issued last fall estimated that up to 22 million pounds of plastic waste are entering the five Great Lakes annually; half of that amount has become washed up in Lake Michigan. That amount is equal to 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools becoming filled with plastic bottles year after year.
As aquariums are popular places for families and school field trip visits, the hope of ACP members is that the message about plastic’s devastating impact on marine environments can send a strong message to children and adults.
“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 in a public statement. “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.”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one example of how a well-respected institution can find success in taking on a more activist role. The 33-year-old aquarium on Monterey’s Cannery Row supported the disposable plastic bag ban in California; that law was approved by an almost six-point margin, despite the fact that a plastic bag lobbying group succeeded in landing a similar proposition on the ballot in an attempt to confuse voters - which California voters in turn refused to pass.
Image credit: Nels Israelson/Flickr