Mystic Aquarium will open a new exhibit in April built and donated by Draper that illustrates plastic pollution, at both the visible and invisible levels, in the ocean. The exhibit, called Plastic Free Seas, is important because plastic pollution is found in almost every marine habitat around the world.
Katie Cubina, Senior Vice President, Mission Programs for Mystic Aquarium, said “We believe it is our responsibility as a strong community partner and one of the nation’s leading aquariums to inform, educate and empower as we strive to make a consistent, positive impact on the ocean planet. Draper will help us bring awareness to the global challenge of ocean plastics and provide our visitors with a unique interactive component in our Plastic Free Seas exhibit.”
Nearly nine million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. As these plastics are broken down by the sun and waves into smaller and smaller pieces, they become microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic, smaller than a grain of rice and not visible to the human eye. The exhibit is designed to uniquely illuminate these otherwise invisible particles to visitors. While public interest in cleaning up the oceans grows, scientists have yet to develop a real-time microplastics sensing system.
“Assessing the risks posed by microplastics in the seas is hampered by lack of data, and conventional methods of collecting such data are labor-intensive and costly,” said Louis Kratchman, a research engineer at Draper. “A platform for rapidly measuring microplastic content in sea, river and lake water would help us map and understand the extent of the problem and provide real-time data for clean-up efforts.”
Kratchman said the ultimate goal is to help researchers map the global distribution of microplastics in the world’s oceans and other water bodies and monitor changes over time. To do that, Draper is designing the world’s first affordable, real-time microplastic sensing system to perform ongoing data collection and analysis throughout the seas, rivers and waterways.
Designed for installation on docks, buoys, boats and eventually small underwater vehicles, the system could monitor microplastics across large areas and even at various depths of the oceans.
“Understanding the sources and movements of microplastics will allow researchers, policymakers and the general public to take the right actions to combat the problem,” Kratchman said. On a recent voyage to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific, Kratchman joined scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to observe and measure microplastics in the ocean firsthand.
Interactive components of Plastic Free Seas, like Draper’s exhibit, will provide a unique perspective to plastic pollution, he added. Draper is making the exhibit design freely available to aquariums and zoos to encourage widespread display and generate awareness on this issue.
Mystic Aquarium is located at 55 Coogan Boulevard, Mystic, CT 06355.
Draper previously announced the inaugural steps in developing the new system were enabled by the Wallace Research Foundationand in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2018 the company convened Microplastics, A Path Forward to Action in Cambridge, with over 100 participants from a broad range of sectors including advocacy groups, watershed and environmental stewardship groups, ocean and marine researchers, solid waste management experts, public health experts and three U.S. aquariums, among others. The outcomes from this workshop are publicly available as a resource for an accurate, scientifically rigorous and straightforward overview of the problem ecosystem, from plastic solid waste management, to microplastic origin and lifecycle and finally to health implications.