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Aquariums pool resources to fight global plastic

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach is teaming up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and others to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics like straws and beverage bottles from their cafes and gift shops.

Nineteen aquariums nationwide have partnered to create a new organization called the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) to address marine issues. 

It's part of a new campaign called "In Our Hands," which aims to raise awareness of plastic pollution in oceans, lakes and rivers.

Dr. Jerry Schubel, CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, says all of the participating aquariums are ready to change their own practices in terms of plastic use. But by far the greatest impact is the aquarium's own reach on the consumers. 

"These 19 aquariums probably get 25 million visitors every year," he said. "We hope it will change some of their behaviors, and I think that's the potential power of this partnership."

Plastic trash is seen floating on the water at Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach.
Andrew Reitsma/Aquarium of the Pacific
Plastic trash is seen floating on the water at Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach.

ACP members have already eliminated plastic straws and single-use plastic bags in their institutions. But the new campaign goes a step further. The aquariums have also committed to these goals:

  • Significantly reduce or eliminate plastic beverage bottles by December 2020
  • Promote innovative alternatives to single-use plastic in their facilities 

California aquariums participating are the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. 

But the move isn't intended to vilify the plastic industry, Schubel said. 

“Much of the plastics in the ocean is simply a behavioral problem," he said. "Instead of disposing of it properly, we just throw it on the street," where it ends up in our rivers and oceans. 

Aimee David, director of ocean conservation policy strategies at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says consumers are at the heart of turning the plastic pollution issue around. 

"Businesses and government will respond if  they feel a demand from the public," she said. 

Schubel says this also isn't the first venture into plastic pollution education for the Aquarium of the Pacific. The institution publicly supported bills like Proposition 67, the state-wide ban against single-use plastic bags in 2016. 

They also created an exhibit on marine trash debris for NOAA's "Science on a Sphere" traveling exhibit, which is accessible for all 140 participating institutions. 

This graphic shows the amount of plastic found in oceans from 1960 to 2014.
Aquarium of the Pacific
This graphic shows the amount of plastic found in oceans from 1960 to 2014.

Conservation leaders say 8.8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year worldwide – equal to a dump truck of plastic every minute. If things don't change soon, by 2025 the rate of plastics entering the ocean is expected to double. 

A report by the Ocean Conservancy unveiled at last year's World Economics Forum said that plastic will outnumber fish in the ocean by 2050. 

Freshwater sources are also harmed by high levels of plastic.

Approximately 22 million pounds of plastic flow into the Great Lakes each year, according to a release from ACP. 

The Los Angeles River and the San Gabriel River also suffer from trash pollution. Local advocacy group Friends of the LA River's annual clean-up event this year removed over 100 tons of trash from the river. 

The campaign kicks off this summer with aquariums working with business partners to come up with alternatives to single-use plastic items and product packaging. Expect to see less plastic in gift stores and aquarium cafes and restaurants.  

Julie Anderson, executive director of the Plastic Oceans Foundation based in Malibu, says all of this is a step in the right direction for a cleaner ocean. As education institutions, aquariums are uniquely poised to become leaders of the plastic pollution issue. 

"Plastics are everywhere - they're integrated into every part of our daily lives," she said. And scientists now find that plastic trash is breaking down into smaller pieces – down to a nanosize level – and getting into our water systems which affects our food chain. 

"In order to solve a problem of this magnitude we need all players involved to join in on a solution," she said. 

July also saw the start of an international plastic-free campaign with the hashtag #PlasticFreeJuly currently trending.

Here's the full list of participating aquariums by state:

  • California: Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach; California Academy of Sciences/Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco; and Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • ​Connecticut: Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut
  • Florida: The Florida Aquarium in Tampa
  • Illinois: Shedd Aquarium in Chicago
  • Kentucky: Newport Aquarium in Kentucky
  • Louisiana: Audubon Nature Institute/Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans
  • Maryland: National Aquarium
  • Massachusetts: New England Aquarium in Boston
  • Nebraska: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium 
  • New York: Wildlife Conservation Society/New York Aquarium in New York City
  • North Carolina: North Carolina Aquariums
  • South Carolina: South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston
  • Tennessee: Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga
  • Texas: Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi
  • Virginia: Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach 
  • Washington State: Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma; and the Seattle Aquarium