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Beyond our Beaches: Ocean Trash

Originally appears in the Spring 2011 issue

Plastic recycling is becoming more common at home and in school. Knowing that the plastics will be recycled into new products makes it easier for us to accept the large quantity of plastic we consume each day. On the other hand, most of us are dismayed to find discarded plastics by the side of the road or along the beach. We are also familiar with images of birds, turtles and seals tangled in six-pack rings or ‘ghost’ fishing nets. It is the plastic pollution we don’t see everyday, however, that may help us (and our students) make the connection between the plastics we throw away and the magnitude of our environmental impact. Plastic debris is abundant at sea, far from where it is used or manufactured.

This article summarizes recent findings on plastic marine debris concentration, distribution and composition, and discusses some of the questions that remain to be answered by current and future generations of scientists. It also provides classroom activities that will encourage students, aged 12-17 to think more globally about their local activities. Some of these activities can be adapted to work with those as young as eight.

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Skye Morét-Ferguson is a Research Associate and Amy NS Siuda is a Faculty Oceanographer and Chief Scientist with Sea Education Association (, a Woods Hole, Massachusetts-based institution offering high school summer and undergraduate SEA Semester field programs in marine and environmental studies.