Photograph by Sergi Garcia Fernandez, Biosphoto, Minden Pictures
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Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.
Photograph by Sergi Garcia Fernandez, Biosphoto, Minden Pictures

Plastic Pollution

What's the problem?

A sea turtle swims through the water and spots a white blob floating near the surface. “Yum!” it thinks. “A jellyfish!” Chasing after its dinner, the turtle swallows the item. But the floating blob isn’t a jelly—it’s a plastic bag that could make the sea turtle sick.

This sea creature isn’t alone: Over 700 species of marine animals have been reported to have eaten or been entangled in plastic. Scientists think that the amount of plastic in the ocean might triple by 2050—and that would mean seriously bad news for the ocean and the creatures that live there. But by understanding the issue and taking action, you can help stop that from happening.

What's the problem with plastic?

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First, let’s get real: Not all plastic is bad. Bike helmets, car airbags, and many medical supplies made with plastic save lives. Plastic water bottles can bring clean drinking water to people who don’t have it, and plastic straws can help people with disabilities drink.

The problem is that most of us use and then toss way more plastic than we need: things like grocery bags, drink bottles, straws, food wrappers, and plastic packaging around toys. This kind of plastic that’s used only once before being thrown away is called single-use plastic, and it makes up more than 40 percent of all plastic trash.

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Plastic grocery bags often end up in the ocean.

Where does the plastic go?

That’s a lot of trash. Scientists think that 8.8 million tons of plastic winds up in the ocean every year—that’s as if you stacked up five plastic grocery bags full of trash on top of each other on every foot of coastline in the world.

How does it get into the sea? Plastic left on the ground as litter often blows into creeks and rivers, eventually ending up in the ocean. And because plastic trash is different from other types of waste—it doesn’t decompose back into nature like an apple core or a piece of paper—it stays in the ocean forever. That means discarded fishing nets and six-pack rings can entangle animals; harmful straws and grocery bags can be mistaken as food.

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Sea birds like this pelican often mistake pieces of plastic for food.

What can we do about it?

You can do so much to help keep Earth clean! Start by taking the Kids Vs. Plastic pledge to show that you care about this problem. You can also look at how much single-use plastic your family uses by filling out a plastic journal for a week—then talking about what you can do to use less. Need ideas? Check out these quick tips to reduce your plastic waste. By working together, our choices can help save animals—and the ocean they live in.