The text on this site is presented as an archival version of the script of "Ocean Planet," a 1995 Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition. The content reflects the state of knowledge at the time of the exhibition, and has not been updated.

Our trash kills. When odds and ends of life on land-- particularly plastics--end up in the sea, they pose hazards to marine life. Animals drown or strangle from getting tangled in discarded or lost fishing gear, or suffer and even die from eating plastics and other garbage.

A northern sea lion, entangled in an old net, St. Paul Island, Alaska, rescued by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory
photo © Charles Fowler

A decaying albatross chick, fed plastic garbage by its parents, reveals the objects that killed it, Leeward Island, Hawaii
photo © Frans Lanting/Minden Pictures

Medical waste, Coney Island, 1988 Needles and syringes suspected to have washed from New York City streets and sewer systems after heavy rain storms, washed up onto Long Island and New Jersey beaches during the summer of 1988. Although medical trash turns up infrequently on beaches, estimated costs from lost tourism and recreation that year were as high as $3 billion §.
photo © Michael Baytoff

Biologists who performed an autopsy on an emaciated male sperm whale beached at Sea Side Heights, New Jersey, found this party balloon, ribbon still attached, blocking the animal's digestive tract.
courtesy of Marine Mammal Stranding Center

More Information:

Even desert isles become dumps

Ducie Atoll, Pitcairn Islands, South Pacific An important breeding area for seabirds, the atoll is littered with as much trash as some European beaches.
photo © Tim G. Benton

Almost 300 miles from the nearest inhabited island and over 3000 miles from the nearest continent, Ducie Atoll in the South Pacific is one of the most remote islands. Yet when a scientist visited in 1991, he found over 950 pieces of trash in a 1.5-mile (2.4-km) stretch of beach. Here's an inventory of the litter §:

Buoys:      large  	                 46
            small       	         67
            pieces              	 66
Crates (bread, bottle)          	 14
Plastic bottles (drinks, toiletries)	 71
Glass bottles (from 15 countries)       171
Jars                            	 18
Broken plastic pieces          		268
Bottle tops                     	 74
Pieces of plastic pipe          	 29
Pieces of rope                  	 44
Shoes                           	 25
Fluorescent tubes               	  6
Light bulbs                     	  6
Aerosol cans                    	  7
Food/drink cans                  	  7
Pop tops                         	  2
Gasoline cans                          	  4
Gloves (1 pair)                  	  2
Canned meat (leaking but intact)          1
Cigarette lighters (not working)          3
Doll's heads (1 male, 1 female)           2
Copper sheeting from shipwrecks           8
Truck tire                       	  1
Plastic ninepin                  	  1
Glue syringe                     	  1
Small gas cylinder               	  1
Construction worker's hat        	  1
Plastic coat hanger              	  1
Toy soldier                      	  1
Half a toy airplane              	  1
Tea strainer                     	  1
Football (punctured)             	  1
Car floormat                     	  1
Asthma inhaler                   	  1

Yankee ingenuity turns trash to publicity Plastic tampon applicators, launched by sewer overflows after heavy rains, commonly turn up on the beaches of New Jersey and Cape Cod. Activists are raising money and awareness with these lowly leftovers.

Tampoon, a post-consumer recycled fishing lure produced by Clean Ocean Action, a New Jersey-based conservation group


Beach cleaners comb the coasts Each September hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world participate in the Center for Marine Conservation's International Coastal Cleanup--a program that grew out of CMC's statewide beach cleanup in Texas in 1986 §. Data reported by volunteers indicate types of debris, where it comes from, and how it moves around the world.

Mustang Island cleanup, Texas
photo © Linda Maraniss, Center for Marine Conservation, Washington, D.C.

Falmouth's Morse Pond School sixth graders
Woods Hole, Massachusetts
October 1993

Red Cross beach cleanup, British Virgin Islands
September 1993
photo © BVI Red Cross

Susquehanna River cleanup
Broome County, New York
September 1993

Naval ships stow processed plastic trash

Federal and international law prohibits throwing plastic waste overboard. To handle mountains of plastic trash until ships reach port, the U.S. Navy has developed onboard processors to compact and sanitize plastic trash. This equipment will be on all Navy ships by 1999, and has military and commercial applications worldwide §.

One day's worth of plastic trash from a typical crew of 300 on a U.S. Navy destroyer Compressed into blocks, thirty days' worth can be stored in the space that would be filled by one day's worth of uncompacted plastic trash §. A 300-person Navy destroyer generates about 35 cubic feet of plastic waste per day, which is compressed into 5 to 6 disks §.
photo © Debbie Lurz, U.S. Navy

Other Resources:

International Treaties Concerning the Environment and Climate Change

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman ( (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)