Dear Hailey,

It’s great to hear you want to help our oceans. After all, they do a lot for us. Life in the ocean provides much of the oxygen we breathe and is also a source of food for many animals, including humans.

One of the most important things we can do to prevent more pollution is to keep our garbage, especially plastic, out of the ocean. That’s what I found out from my friend Richelle Tanner, a marine biologist and researcher at Washington State University.

While a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean, it actually started under the Earth’s surface in the form of oil, leftovers of plants and animals that died long ago. Humans can take oil and combine it with other chemical ingredients to make plastics.

illustrated cartoon gray cat, Dr. Universe, wearing a white lab coat, yellow pants, and a crimson shirt with Washington State University logoWe can shape plastic into most anything, from caps to straws to bottles to bags. Let’s follow the trail of a plastic bag.

After a bag is made in a factory, it is shipped out to stores. Humans use the bag to carry different things that they buy. Afterwards, they might throw it in the trash. They might take it back to the store to be recycled with other bags or they might re-use it. They might even just toss it on the ground.

When this plastic bag gets loose in the environment, it might blow to a stream or river and flow to the ocean. That’s why it is important to keep all our waterways clean, even if we don’t live close to a beach.

If this plastic bag gets into the ocean, an animal like a turtle or shark might mistake it for a jellyfish they want to eat and the bag will get tangled in their stomachs.

Plastic has a really strong structure, which makes it a useful material, but it takes time to break down. A plastic bag can take about 20 years to break down. A plastic bottle takes about 400 years.

Tanner said it’s a lot easier to keep plastic out of the ocean than to get it out of the water. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the amount of garbage humans put into the ocean every year is equal to about 90 aircraft carriers, those big ships at sea where planes take off and land.

Tanner said you might work with your class to pick up trash near waterways in your community. You might also share what you’ve learned and talk about it with family and friends.

One other thing you can do is try to reduce your own plastic use. For a week, keep track of all the plastic you use. Then, track another week and see if you’ve improved. Ocean pollution is a big problem, but we can all take small steps to help make a big difference.

Dr. Universe

Bonus Question: What are microplastics? Microplastics are the tiny particles leftover from plastic breaking down. They are so small, we might even need a microscope to see them. Fish might mistake these pieces for food like plankton and end up swallowing them. Scientists have even found that when people eat these fish, the plastic ends up in their bodies, too.