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Making an Impact on Marine Debris through Education

The following is a blog post by Marie Kowalski, Learning Specialist at Shedd Aquarium, about the important role of education in reducing marine debris and plastic pollution.   Take a moment to look around. How many items can you see right now that are made at least partly with plastic? Cell phones, pens, toothbrushes, buttons and...

The following is a blog post by Marie Kowalski, Learning Specialist at Shedd Aquarium, about the important role of education in reducing marine debris and plastic pollution.


Debris floating in Lake Michigan nearby Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Take a moment to look around. How many items can you see right now that are made at least partly with plastic? Cell phones, pens, toothbrushes, buttons and fleece jackets all contain plastic in some form. Plastic often seems unavoidable in our everyday lives, and it can have consequences reaching beyond what we see in our immediate area. Many plastic items being produced all over the world end up in our oceans and waterways, becoming marine debris.

Marine debris is anything made by people that ends up in the Great Lakes or ocean. Most of it (about 80%) comes from land, and most of it is plastic. Once in our waterways, marine debris has numerous impacts on the native aquatic animals and the habitat itself, some of which are still unknown. Possible impacts on wildlife include entanglement – or becoming wrapped in debris, ingesting trash, or losing important habitat. Marine debris also impacts recreation for beach-goers and boaters.

Although marine debris is a complex, global issue, there are steps people can take to mitigate the problem, such as taking individual action or influencing legislation. Most relevant to my area of expertise is mitigating marine debris through education, which can halt plastic pollution at its source. Marine debris education provides people with awareness about the issue, knowledge of appropriate actions and motivation to help the environment.

One of my colleagues on our Learning team at Shedd Aquarium talks with a student in Chicago about ways to protect our planet. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Raising awareness of how marine debris gets into our waterways and how it impacts aquatic ecosystems helps people understand the importance of the issue and how they are directly involved. It is important, however, to be cautious when educating people about environmental issues so as not to create ecophobia. Ecophobia is the idea that by teaching young children about large-scale environmental problems with the hope of inspiring future environmentally-responsible citizens, we may be doing the opposite (Sobel 1996). The outcome can be dissociation from the natural world and lack of action. To avoid this, it is important to factor in a person’s scale – how big or small their “world” is based on their developmental stage. For children, their world is pretty small: home, school, the backyard, the playground. At this stage, it is appropriate to foster empathy and encourage exploration of their environment. As their world expands and they explore a larger geographic area, their concern and interests also expand. This is when it is appropriate to introduce larger-scale environmental issues and ways to take action. Even then, actions should be kept relatively local and within the control of the child. This is as true for adults as it is children, and builds up one’s self-efficacy – their belief that they can make a difference.

A student picks up litter on a local beach in Chicago during one of Shedd’s summer Learning programs. Participating in beach clean-ups helps children feel like they can do something to help. ©Shedd Aquarium/Marie Kowalski

Building people’s self-efficacy is necessary to help them make decisions that positively impact the environment. To build this confidence, the message must be relevant to people’s lives as well as actionable. Providing local knowledge and clear, achievable actions makes the complex issue of marine debris feel less daunting. In fact, marine debris really is a local issue. Even if you live far from a beach, trash is carried for miles by streams and rivers out to one of the Great Lakes or ocean.

Shedd Aquarium’s hometown of Chicago sits on the coast of Lake Michigan, and it is important to come together as city residents to protect the lake as a resource. That is why Shedd is expanding its dedication to reducing plastic pollution through education.

Our Shedd Stewards program for middle and high school students and our Wreath-Cycled program for Chicagoland schools are both examples of learning programs at the aquarium that help us educate the next generation about the issues with marine debris and how they can prevent it. These programs teach Chicagoland youth about the importance of recycling, as well as how to reduce their individual use of single-use plastic items. Similarly, Shedd is excited to welcome a temporary exhibit, Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea, dedicated to educating guests about the dangers of plastics. It is a traveling exhibit that will be at Shedd this year and the next, and features visually striking aquatic animal sculptures created from marine debris, some of which is familiar household items, such as toothbrushes or even shoes.

These experiences promote awareness about the issue of marine debris while also encouraging people to make choices that help the environment. Everyone has the ability to spread awareness and have a positive impact on environmental issues. By learning more yourself and educating others about the problems and solutions of marine debris, we all have a larger impact.

For more information about the problem of plastic pollution and marine debris, visit our website.

Known as “Stella the Seahorse,” this larger-than-life seahorse is a piece of the Washed Ashore traveling art exhibit. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez



  1. NOAA
  2. EPA
  3. NOAA
  4. Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society.

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Meet the Author

Shedd Aquarium
The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District.