If you don’t remember or aren’t familiar with the new science exhibit at the Alaska SeaLife Center, we are taking questions from the public and answering them through our blog and social media. To see some questions answered you can always visit our previous posts about questions from the public. The new science exhibit strikes again with a great question from Tanisha Jones: “How often do you find plastic in the ocean?”

“We are producing over 300 million tons of plastic every year, 50% of which is for single-use purposes – utilized for just a few moments, but on the planet for at least several hundred years. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year (Plastic Oceans).”

Plastics can end up in the ocean through many different ways. Some of those ways might be intentional such as littering, but others are accidental such as storm runoff and drainage.

Infographic from NOAA

Plastics take an extremely long time to decompose. This means any that make it into the ocean stay for a long time, leaving many opportunities for animals to digest them or get entangled in them and get sick or injured. Plastics in the ocean come in all sorts of shapes and sizes from large plastic bags and bottles all the way down to microplastics. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that many larger plastics break down into. These microplastics are so small that ocean life can easily ingest them without them even realizing it. If you want to read more about ingested microplastics and marine debris entanglement this research paper gives specific details on them both.

Species entangled in marine debris (A) Galapagos shark entangled with a closure ring for plastic drums (B) Humpback whale entangled in a large fishing net (C) Inca tern entangled in remains of fishing net (D) Red-legged cormorant in its nest. Image from Thiel, Luna-Jorquera, 2018, Frontiers in Marine Science.

Naturally the next question that stems from that is: what can we do about all of this plastic that eventually wines up in the ocean?

This is not an easy question to answer and it is not an easy solution either. Here are the top 5 ways you can help the plastic problem in our oceans.

1. Think Local for Global Change

One of the biggest things to remember when talking about making a difference is that we are always stronger in numbers. Joining in locally to participate in community efforts and local cleanups to reduce plastic is one of the best ways to start making a difference. Staying in touch with your local zoo, aquarium, or nature center will also keep you updated on any changes and keep you actively involved in the plastic-reducing effort. We are all part of the problem; therefore, we all have to be involved in the solution.

Ophelia the Octopus made out of plastic debris that students at Kodiak High School picked up on a local coastal cleanup

2. Stay Politically Active and Informed

Staying involved in politics is another great way to participate in efforts to help our ocean’s existing problems. Writing your local politicians letters or signing petitions are all great ways to make your voice heard and express your concerns. There are two main legislations about plastics in the ocean that are currently in the works. The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act was passed in early January in the Senate, and is moving on to the House.

Senator of Alaska, Dan Sullivan, was one of the driving forces on this piece of legislation saying “Our legislation aims to tackle this global challenge on three fronts – improving America’s ability to respond to marine debris events and clean up waste, working toward international cooperation and agreements with nations responsible for the majority of trash entering the oceans, and exploring new, innovative ways to manage and even reuse plastic waste. The Senate’s resounding support for our bill today is another sign that the federal government is ready to take serious steps to address a challenge that impacts our coastal communities, many of them in Alaska”.

Image from U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s Twitter Account

The second piece of legislation is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. This is a movement to break free from the use of plastic and look for other alternatives. Many individuals, businesses, and organizations have joined this movement and started campaigns to use less plastic such as metal/paper straw campaigns and campaigns against plastic grocery bags. These two legislations are currently in the works–keep an eye on them!

3. Let your Voice be Heard

The Alaska SeaLife Center is a part of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP). The ACP is a coalition that combines aquariums from all over the country to join in movements and projects to improve the quality of our oceans. The ACP participates in many projects against the use of plastics and you can get involved in these projects by seeing if your local aquarium is in ACP too and volunteering with them.

The Alaska SeaLife Center supports plastic straw bans and plastic bag bans right here in Seward, Alaska. Forming an opinion about local laws and acting on that opinion is another great opportunity for you to make a difference. Support the plastic bag and straw bans if you don’t have them in your local area yet, and if you do have them, thank the people who make that happen. Thank your government officials and local businesses who participate in those bans and let them know that you appreciate the extra step that they are taking to be plastic-free. 

4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repeat

Recycling is not just the responsibility of the consumer. Big companies and businesses have to be held responsible for how they are packaging and distributing goods. Another great way to reduce plastics is to get involved with and learn about local co-operatives such as Blue Market Alaska in Anchorage. There you can make your own all-natural foods and bring your own jars and containers to refill with different foods, thus reducing the amount of plastic you store your food in and the amount of plastic normally used to ship your foods to your local grocery store.

Picture of a stand at Blue Market Alaska in Anchorage. Image from Indiegogo

5. Keep Track of your Ecological Footprint

While doing what you can to help reduce the amounts of plastic being stored in the ocean, many of us don’t realize how much plastic we are using. Filling out a plastic audit by writing down all the plastics you use on a day-to-day basis can help you easily keep track of your progress. Reflecting on what you learned about your plastic usage that you didn’t expect and what you can do to change it can really help you understand the big impacts that just a small amount of plastic can cause. Once you have completed a challenge like this, share it with other people! Share what you learned about yourself and your plastic usage in general. As I said before, the best solution to the plastic problem is one that we all come up with together. Below is a YouTube video of a thirty day zero waste challenge that was completed by a couple.

Zero Waste Challenge

If you don’t want to take on the challenge alone join in on plastic free July. Many aquariums, zoos, and conservation centers do this challenge to get people thinking about plastic and how we can change our daily lives to help the plastic problem.

Contributing individually and locally in your community can really help spread information about the plastic problem and make a difference in your town, but of course the plastic problem is much bigger than your town. The ocean is the connection between the whole world, and so the plastic problem is a worldly problem. We need to be a world leader and our country has to set an example for other countries. If we can find ways to efficiently recycle our garbage in our own country without sending it away or without letting it end up in the ocean, we can share those ways with countries all over the world and have a worldly solution to truly impact the ocean in a positive way. An article recently came out that describes how Asia has already started finding ways to recycle their plastic into useful things such as aerogels, roads, textiles, and bricks.

Image from Aquarium Works

There are all sorts of ways to reduce plastic use and to be actively involved in a plastic-free solution for the world. No matter what ways you decide to try, the most important thing is that you are trying. That is the first step in obtaining and conserving a clean, healthy ocean!

Written by: Mary Keenan, ASLC Science Communication Intern 2020

Feature image credit: Infographic from Ocean Conservancy

Leave a Reply