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On Display: Aquariums’ Solution for the Ocean Plastic Pollution Crisis

The United States’ major aquariums pledge to go plastic-free by 2020, showing one way to eliminate plastic from the industrial supply chain before it reaches the ocean.

Written by Matthew O. Berger Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Visitors take photos and view fish and shark species in a 1 million gallon (3,800 cubic meter) tank exhibit depicting the open ocean at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.Sau Loeb/AFP

Like zoos, museums and amusement parks, aquariums rely on food and gift shop sales for revenue. But in the case of aquariums, the byproducts of those sales can end up harming the very marine life visitors pay to see.

As the ocean plastic pollution crisis intensifies, the United States’ major aquariums pledged Monday to significantly reduce or eliminate single-use plastics in their facilities by 2020.

The initiative, the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, will build on efforts already being undertaken at many aquariums. The goal: Cut plastic pollution at the 19 participating institutions and get the aquariums’ 20 million annual visitors to think twice about their personal plastic use while encouraging manufacturers and food vendors to eliminate plastics from their supply chains. In short, offer a model to reform the plastic-industrial complex.

About 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean annually. Plastic debris strangles sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other marine life or blocks their digestive tracts after being ingested. “When it enters the ocean it never completely goes away. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces,” said Aimee David, director of ocean conservation policy strategies at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is spearheading the new campaign. “We want consumers to take a second look when they go to reach for something that they’ll use for five minutes.”

Aquariums, like zoos and amusement parks, are places people tend to visit on holiday, and single-use plastic products – soda bottles, straws, disposable cups, take-out containers, food packaging, gift shop bags – were once ubiquitous. But aquariums are also miniature oceans, offering a glimpse inside a world most visitors will never see in the wild. By eliminating plastics, the aquariums hope to show visitors how “to be the change you want to see in the world.”

“We are all working on setting an example,” Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, told Oceans Deeply last month. “We’re very excited that our beverage case is completely plastic-free now and we got rid of disposable cups years ago in our restaurant … You got to walk the talk but also it’s a real education for people who are visiting.”

Monterey Bay Aquarium has a track record on the education side of these campaigns. Its groundbreaking Seafood Watch program raised awareness among consumers and corporations of overfishing and how to eat sustainably back when orange roughy and shark steaks were still common on restaurant menus.

That program originally grew out of an aquarium exhibit, “Fishing for Solutions,” which sought to educate visitors on the overfishing of vulnerable species. Today, the aquarium has an exhibit on plastic pollution, and at least six of the other 18 aquariums in the coalition will host exhibits on plastics or awareness campaigns, like the “Shedd the Straw” campaign launched by Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

Monterey Bay Aquarium hasn’t offered plastic straws for more than a decade. “I’ve been here 13 years and I’ve never seen a straw,” said Andrew Fischer, general manager of merchandizing at the aquarium and director of conservation at SSA, the aquarium’s retail and culinary vendor. “Sometimes it comes as a surprise to visitors but once they hear the reasons, they understand.”

The self-service cafe at the aquarium became completely plastic-free earlier this year by eliminating plastic straws, cutlery and then other items most visitors would not even notice. For instance, Lura Migdal, culinary general manager at the aquarium, said a tea supplier recently switched its packaging to one that included plastic. The aquarium sent the tea bags back and found a new supplier. Beverages that come in glass bottles but have a tiny piece of plastic around the lids are no longer offered. And oyster crackers, which are packaged in plastic, also aren’t sold anymore.

But other products remain on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s gift store shelves after shedding their plastic packaging. Fischer said that at SSA’s behest, Wild Republic, one of the largest suppliers to zoo and aquarium gift shops, eliminated plastic packaging from 19 products.

Those changes add up to the elimination of about 9,000lb (4,080kg) of plastic waste annually, Fischer said. Other clients can now request such plastic-free packaging options. “If they ask for it, it will come,” he said. “So we can have a much, much larger impact.”

But there’s more work to do. Seven percent of the retail inventory at the Monterey Bay Aquarium still has a single-use plastic item, said Fischer, down from 10 percent late last year.

As of Monday’s announcement, all the aquariums in the partnership had removed straws and plastic shopping bags from their institutions.

By 2020, plastic bottles for water, juice, soda and other beverages will be gone, replaced by paper cups for fountain drinks and glass or aluminum bottles and cans.

“Plastic production has been growing at an increasing rate since the 1950s,” said David, but noted that the amount being recycling has stagnated. “At this point [we are] looking to prioritize the most sustainable alternatives.”

The trade group the Plastics Industry Association said in a statement that it supports efforts to curtail marine pollution but that the priority should be on the recovery, reuse and recycling of plastics rather than bans.

“We support a collaborative approach that focuses on educating people about how plastics should be properly disposed while not eliminating/dictating people’s choices,” the group said. “Every alternative product resource has its own life-cycle impact.”

David said the participating aquariums are at different stages of phasing out plastics, and that products with plastic components are still a significant source of revenue for some institutions.

“We’re businesses too,” she said. “We want to seek a middle ground and see incremental progress.” She hopes the efforts ripple beyond aquariums and would like to see more businesses take plastic pollution more seriously. “We want the marketplace to invest more in innovations and new products,” David said. “I don’t think all the solutions have been invented yet.”

The exact volume of plastics the aquariums in the partnership currently use isn’t known. “That’s something we’ll have to start measuring now so we know as we move toward 2020,” David said.

The nation’s most visited aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium, declined to join the coalition, it said, due to an overlap with its existing anti-plastic initiatives and a priority to allocate funds toward research and conservation projects, according to spokesperson Jessica Fontana.

She noted that the Georgia Aquarium has never served plastic straws or allowed them “to enter our building” and that the gift shop doesn’t offer plastic bags and the cafe “has switched many products to recycled materials and has started conversations with our vendors to reduce single-use plastic options in our cafe with the same hope of phasing out single-use plastics altogether.”

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