Please drink responsibly

Trish Mace

Trish Mace

Trish Mace is an Ocean Education Specialist at the plastics-related education cart in the Sant Ocean Hall of the National Museum of American History. This article was originally published by the Sustainabilty Matters Newsletter.

Smithsonian researchers come across plastic debris everywhere in the ocean, from coastlines to the deep sea. We’re all part of the marine debris story. About 80 percent of marine debris comes from land—a lot of it blown in or carried by streams and rivers, or dropped on beaches where it then gets transported by currents throughout the ocean. Most floating debris is plastic, but not all plastic floats. Marine debris can float, sink or remain suspended in the water column. When a sinking piece reaches a layer of water whose density matches its own, it stops sinking and remains suspended in the water.

Marine debris poses serious threats to marine life through entanglement and ingestion. Some debris is mistaken for food–causing cuts, infections and obstructions–leading to weakness or starvation and death. Ingesting Styrofoam can increase an animal’s buoyancy, making it harder for the animal to dive for food or escape from predators. Plastics break apart into ever-smaller pieces, eventually forming minute particles referred to as microplastics ingested by filter feeders. Bioaccumulation of toxins is another concern. Chemical additives are used in plastic production to alter flexibility, durability and color. These chemicals can leach into the water or into animals that ingest the plastic. Many plastics also absorb certain hydrophobic organic chemical pollutants from the water, such as PCBs and DDT, concentrating these chemicals. Plastics also provide drifting surfaces that can transport invasive species to places they don’t naturally occur.

Albatross body with plastic stomach contents

The body of an albatross showing the indigestible plastic contents of its stomach. (Photo by David Littischwager) contents

The Natural History Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall recently added eye-catching images, stories and interactive exhibits to highlight human connections to the ocean, including the impact of marine debris; a volunteer-facilitated education cart engages and educates visitors about what they can do to be part of the solution.

The Ocean Portal website reaches visitors beyond the museum with information and images and ways to get involved in solutions. Activities in both the Sant Ocean Hall and the new Q?rius center allow visitors to learn about impacts and solutions while creating art pieces that make a connection between common plastic waste and the organisms and habitats affected by personal decisions. Even something as small as a bottle cap or cigarette butt (yes, butts are plastic too), carelessly dropped on the road or sidewalk, can be washed into a storm drain and carried to the sea. Butts are the most common plastic pollution found on beaches, and bottle caps are being found in the stomachs of dead albatross chicks as far away as remote Midway Island in the center of the Pacific

The Smithsonian has placed numerous recycling receptacles around its museums and has added markers to storm drains in an effort to remind people that the drains can lead to rivers and the ocean. We recycle 150 to 190 tons of bottles and cans per year. We can all help by minimizing our use of plastics and making sure to recycle them.


Laurie Penland is the Smithsonian’s scientific diving officer. She took this video at the Smithsonian Research Station on Carrie Bow, a small island off the southern end of Belize, when to her and her colleagues’ surprise, she says, “everywhere you looked there was trash floating by.

At the tail end of a research dive, with air left in her tank and battery life on her camera, Penland decided to investigate one particular garbage patch, about 100 meters long. “There was a lot of chop on the surface from the winds so as I approached the mass of trash from underneath, it was moving up and down like a swirling angry monster, reaching out to me then pulling back, then swallowing me whole.” Up close, you can make out plastic forks and spoons, bottle caps and rubber balloons.

The experience was a profound one for Penland, and she hopes the video will resonate with others. “I gave a lot of thought as to how I could live a plastic-free life. I have a box of plastic forks and spoons that I use for box lunches. I now wash them in the dishwasher with the rest of my silverware and will never buy them again. I also try to reuse any containers that I get from stores and restaurants,” she says. “This has eliminated any need to buy plasticware, so it saves money too!”

Posted: 21 March 2014
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