Science Policy & Funding News

Roving Exhibit Highlights Ocean Plastics Problem

The Ocean Plastics Lab, currently on the National Mall in Washington, D. C., illustrates the pollution threat and points to solutions.

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Plastic seems to be everywhere in the oceans, from urban harbors to remote beaches, from the middle of the oceans to the depths of the seas. It endangers marine creatures that ingest plastic or get entangled in it, harms coral reefs, and potentially presents a hazard to human health as microplastics move up the food chain.

Testifying to the ubiquitousness of plastic, scientists in April reported on the finding of a plastic bag nearly 11,000 meters beneath the surface of the ocean in the Mariana Trench. Earlier this week, an autopsy of a pilot whale in Thailand revealed 80 plastic bags in its stomach among other plastic items. And right now, a long-distance swimmer, Ben Lecomte, is on his way from Japan to San Francisco, aiming to swim through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to bring attention to it.

Plastic trash removed from the ocean is on display as part of the Ocean Plastics Lab traveling exhibit.
Plastic trash removed from the ocean is on display as part of the Ocean Plastics Lab traveling exhibit. Credit: Randy Showstack

An international traveling exhibit now in Washington, D. C., also is calling attention to plastics pollution in the oceans and what can be done about it. The Ocean Plastics Lab, which is on the National Mall from 4 to 17 June and open from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily, graphically presents the problem by leading visitors through different sections of the exhibit to see the waste, detect its impacts, and examine potential solutions.

Several walls in the science-based exhibit, for instance, are covered with debris representing the mess of plastic already in the oceans and the estimated 4.8–12.7 billion kilograms more entering the oceans annually. Elsewhere in the interactive display, visitors can scan bar codes to see how long different types of plastic last, find out what kinds of plastics float or sink, and learn about research into plastics and solutions to the problem.

Addressing the Issue as a “Matter of Urgency”

Experts estimate that an average of 8.7 billion kilograms of plastic gets deposited into the oceans every year. In other words, “about 35 shipping containers of plastic end up in the sea every hour, and the plastic which for so long seemed to just disappear is reappearing in all sorts of places,” said Boris Ruge, minister and deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Germany, Washington, D. C., during the exhibit’s opening ceremony on 4 June. The exhibit is an initiative of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the German Marine Research Consortium, and the European Commission and has more than 60 partners from around the world, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA.

“We must address this issue as a matter of urgency, and science can play a decisive role in strengthening public awareness. This is exactly what the Ocean Plastics Lab is intended to do,” Ruge said of the exhibit, which already has been to Belgium, France, and Italy.

Important Personally and Professionally

Attendees at the ceremony included Tim Gallaudet, acting administrator of NOAA. Gallaudet, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, told Eos that he is personally and professionally concerned about the issue.

Julia Schnetzer, the scientific coordinator of the Ocean Plastics Lab, provides a tour of the exhibit to dignitaries.
Julia Schnetzer (at left), the scientific coordinator of the Ocean Plastics Lab, provides a tour of the exhibit to dignitaries at its opening ceremony, including (left to right) Caroline Vicini, deputy head of the delegation of the European Union to the United States; Craig McLean, acting chief scientist and assistant administrator for oceanic and atmospheric research at NOAA; Tim Gallaudet, acting NOAA administrator; and Jon White, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. The Washington Monument is visible in the background. Credit: Randy Showstack

“I’ve been to plenty of beaches and areas of the ocean that are just deplorable, not in their natural state and quite polluted,” Gallaudet said. “Personally, it’s something I think is important to fix and remedy.”

Gallaudet highlighted NOAA’s efforts on the issue, including the agency spending more than $17 million over the past decade to remove 6,500 metric tons of marine debris from U.S. ocean and coastal areas. “At NOAA, we’re trying to champion the blue economy: It’s our fisheries, it’s recreation and tourism within our [marine] sanctuaries, it’s increasing the efficiency of marine shipping. And pollution really degrades all of those activities,” he said. “It’s important to remove the pollution and prevent it from occurring in the first place.”

U.S. Senators Weigh In

Several U.S. senators who were unable to attend the opening ceremony told Eos why they are concerned about plastic in the oceans.

“The increasing presence of plastics in the ocean is a rising global issue and a topic that hits especially close to home for Alaskans,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said. “Our state has more coastline than the entire Lower 48 combined, and the massive amounts of debris washing up on our shores harm our ocean and coastal ecosystems, threaten fisheries and marine life, and damage the health and livelihoods of the subsistence harvesters who rely on the health of our oceans.”

Murkowski told Eos that she appreciates the efforts of the Ocean Plastics Lab in engaging and educating the public on the harmful impacts of plastic and on potential solutions to the problem. “The importance of encouraging a greater global focus on this issue cannot be understated,” she said.

“The plastic waste polluting our oceans and shores is more than an eyesore. It’s a big threat to ocean and coastal ecosystems, to our economy, and to our way of life in states like Rhode Island,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told Eos. Whitehouse said he is grateful for Germany’s leadership on this issue. He is also looking forward to Canada “picking up the torch” during its Group of Seven (G7) presidency. “For my part,” Whitehouse added, “I’ll continue the bipartisan fight against marine debris on the Senate Oceans Caucus.”

A Commitment to Taking Action

For Julia Schnetzer, the scientific coordinator of the exhibit, “it was always important to save the ocean, because it’s my big love.” Schnetzer, a marine biologist, acknowledged numerous threats to the ocean that need to be addressed but said, “you have to start somewhere.”

A visitor explores some of the displays at the Ocean Plastics Lab.
A visitor explores some of the displays at the Ocean Plastics Lab. Credit: Randy Showstack

Jon White, president and CEO of the Washington, D. C.–based Consortium for Ocean Leadership, told Eos that it’s tough “seeing the degradation, the junk that’s on the beaches, the dying of coral reefs—all of these things that are happening just in my lifetime. I’ve personally witnessed so much tragedy.”

White, who delivered comments at the exhibit’s opening ceremony, added, “That’s why I’m so committed to trying to take actions, whether it’s ocean plastics, ocean acidification, coastal issues. Whatever it may be, we as humans bear a lot of responsibility. But also, with our commitment and our ingenuity, we can fix it.”

Dealing with the plastics problem should be “a bipartisan, nonpartisan issue,” he added. “No one wants plastic in the ocean.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Roving exhibit highlights ocean plastics problem, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO100659. Published on 07 June 2018.
© 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0