Visitors walk past a wall of plastics Monday at the pop-up exhibit “Ocean Plastics Lab” on the Mall in Washington. The exhibit aims to help visitors understand the problem of plastics in the ocean and the possible solutions. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

German marine microbiologist Julia Schnetzer shook her head as she pointed out items in a colorful wall display of plastic trash on the Mall in Washington.

“We’ve got fishing nets, bottles, a construction helmet, a boogie board,” she said. “I’ve even seen a mannequin head 600 meters below.”

Julia Schnetzer, a German marine microbiologist, organized the exhibit with the help from scientists around the world. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

The display of ocean trash is part of a pop-up exhibit that Schnetzer and other scientists created. Their “Ocean Plastics Lab” consists of four shipping containers filled with interactive science exhibits. The idea is to raise

awareness about plastics pollution in the seas, help people understand its impact and encourage them to address the problem. The exhibit is on an international tour, with earlier stops in Italy, France and Belgium.

Using containers was meant to show how much trash humans dump into the ocean. According to the project’s website, the amount is roughly equivalent to 850 shipping containers full of plastic trash every day. This dumping is disastrous to ocean life. It can also harm those of us who don’t live in the ocean, by contaminating Earth’s water with particles that we can’t even see, such as plastic microbeads and fibers from clothing.

“We actually don’t know if plastic ever disappears,” Schnetzer said. “The worst is the fishing line that takes 600 years to break down.”

Plastic bags, she says, take about 20 years to degrade. But they pose other problems, such as possibly killing the sea turtles and whales that eat them. Bags also wrap around and suffocate coral.

Nikasha Kapadia, a 12-year-old from Chandler, Arizona, explored the exhibit Monday afternoon. She was dismayed to discover that only 9 percent of the world’s plastic is recycled and that much of the rest litters the ocean.

“If we litter in the ocean, eventually it will come back to us, and it can cause problems in a lot of ways,” Nikasha said.

But Nikasha was hopeful. She noted that kids have a lot of power to change things if they get interested in a cause. The Ocean Plastics Lab, she said, will help kids learn how they can be part of the solution.

Each of the four containers has a theme. The first provides an introduction to the problem. The second shows examples of marine pollution. The third discusses the impact of this pollution, and the fourth offers solutions.

The “Ocean Plastics Lab” is a collection of four shipping containers that feature hands-on science. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Visitors to the interactive exhibit can examine a sand sample through a microscope, use a bar-code scanner to see how many years a plastic item will take to decompose and track garbage patches that move around oceans. Visitors can also learn about ways to help solve the problem, such as by using an app that tracks marine debris and by picking up trash.

“One of the messages of the lab is that everything counts,” said Monica Allen, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a sponsor of the project. She says even drinking out of a cup instead of using a plastic straw can make a real difference.

“The ocean is our life source,” Schnetzer said, pointing out that more than 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe is produced by tiny ocean plants called phytoplankton. “When the ocean dies, we die. We need to take care of it.”

Nikasha Kapadia, 12, looks at small plastic particles in a hands-on part of the exhibit. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)


What: “Ocean Plastics Lab”

When: Daily, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., through
June 17.

Where: The Mall, between the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Castle, at 10th Street NW near Jefferson Drive SW.

How much: Free.

For more information: Exhibit details are at Also, check out NOAA’s marine-debris solutions page at