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United States Museum Debut

January 30 – April 25

We made plastic. We depend on it. Now we’re drowning in it.

Planet or Plastic?, an exhibition by National Geographic, shines a spotlight on the fragility of the natural environment as a result of the global plastic waste crisis.

Featuring the work of researchers, scientists and artists, the exhibition traces the history of plastic from its invention in the mid-1800s to present day where, seemingly everything is made of plastic. Planet or Plastic? explores the plastic pollution of our world’s oceans and uncovers how untold numbers of marine animals die each year from ingesting micro-plastics. The exhibition will also feature a look into the rise of single-use plastics due to COVID-19.

At the culmination of the exhibit, guests are provided with practical steps to responsibly reduce, reuse, recycle, and refuse single-use plastic products. The exhibit is recommended for all ages and will feature special programming each weekend.

Ticket Details:

– FREE for Nauticus Members
– Included in General Admission Ticket ($15.95/adult* & $11.50/child* *plus tax)
*Capacity is limited, masks are required for guest’s ages 5+ and thorough cleanings will occur throughout the day.

Introduction - Living in the Age Plastics

Most of us interact with hundreds of pieces of plastic everyday – at work, in restaurants and in our own homes. Plastic is so commonplace that we don’t realize how much we rely on it. Plastic has largely changed human life for the better.

Is there a way for us to keep using this miracle material and enjoy a pollution-free environment too? Experts say yes. Through a combination of citizen engagement, corporate diligence, scientific innovation and policy change, we can solve our plastic problem.

Photograph by Richard John Seymour, courtesy of National Geographic. 

Plastics - A Modern Marvel

The invention of plastic changed the world. The first plastics were created 150 years ago and few inventions have had such a profound impact on the entire world. From the mid-1800s and a competition to find a cheaper, more readily available substitute for ivory, to the early 20th century where suddenly, anything and everything could be made of plastic – and was.

Photograph by Peter Stackpole. Courtesy of LIFE Picture Collection. Getty Images.

Featured Artwork/Content

WATCH National Geographic’s mini documentary ‘A Brief History of How Plastic Has Changed Our World’. 

The Darker Side of Plastics

Roughly 40 percent of plastic manufactured today is disposable, likely to be discarded within minutes of purchase. Most plastic never reaches a recycling bin. In this section, the vast amounts and different types of plastic waste generated by all countries across the world is explored in photographs.

In this section, the vast amounts and different types of plastic waste generated by all countries across the world is explored in photographs.

Photograph by Jordi Chias, courtesy of National Geographic.



Featured Artwork/Content

Your Sneakers Are Part of the Plastic Problem (Duration: 5:44)

WATCH National Geographic’s mini documentaries on ‘The Story of Plastic’.

Featured Artwork/Content

What’s the World’s Most Littered Plastic Item? Cigarette Butts (Duration: 5:21)

National Geographic’s mini documentaries on ‘The Story of Plastic’.

The Haunting Art of Plastic Pollution

Photographers, artists and activists help us to see the problem of ocean plastics in new ways. Their images can be both alluring and repulsive, opening our eyes to the extent of the problem and inspiring us to take action.

This section of the exhibition, one of the photographers featured, Mandy Barker, has produced a series of images constructed from collected and crowd-sourced plastic remnants.

Photograph by Mandy Barker, courtesy of National Geographic.



Featured Artwork/Content

If you licked one of these “treats,” you’d encounter cigarette butts, oil, oozing trash, and a whole lot of plastic and other unsavory pollutants. Three art students collected water from a hundred sites around Taiwan and then froze it into blocks. The artists—Hong Yi-chen, Guo Yi-hui, and Zheng Yu-ti—hope to draw public attention to water contamination and inspire people to generate less waste through their frozen creations.

Photograph by Zheng YU-TI, courtesy of National Geographic. 

Steps Toward A Cleaner Future

The most successful efforts to combat the looming catastrophe created by ocean plastics have been made by multiple parties, including local governments, the plastics industry and public groups.  Scientists and researchers are helping the cause, working to define the scope of the problem, its effects on both people and wildlife, and what can be done to mitigate the effects of ocean plastics.


Photograph by Randy Olsen, courtesy of National Geographic.


Currently about one-fifth of all plastic waste is recycled, but in the United States the proportion is lower—only about 10 percent. Recology’s largest recycling plant in San Francisco, California, handles 500 to 600 tons of waste daily. One of the few plants in the U.S. that accepts shopping bags, it has more than doubled the tonnage it recycles in the past 20 years. The conveyor belt is carrying mixed plastic to an optical sorter.

Photograph by Randy Olsen, courtesy of National Geographic.

Science in Action

Scientists, engineers and innovators are looking for ways to bolster community action and inspire government policy change. They are engineering new materials that break down faster after they are discarded, finding new uses for the plastics we already have, and developing more effective strategies for capturing waste that escapes the disposal stream. Their research is also illuminating the scope of the plastics problem. In this section are profiles of some of National Geographic’s explorers, fellows, and grantees who are addressing the problem of plastic waste. 

Photography by Heather Koldewey, courtesy of National Geographic.

COVID-19 & Rise of Single-Use Plastic

Curated by Nauticus Educators, this section of the exhibition focuses on how COVID-19 has increased our usage of single-use plastic, especially through the usage of disposable face masks. It asks the question, “Have you ever wondered what happens to your disposable mask when you’re done with it?”  Masks help us stay safe and protect our community but that doesn’t mean we should let them harm the environment.

Learn practical steps you can take at home to reduce your single-use plastic waste while staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Choosing Planet over Plastic

Did you know there are six simple things you can do every day to reduce your plastic use at home and work?  When faced with dozens of decisions every day, we can make a positive change and a real and lasting impact. Citizen–led campaigns have resulted in the increasingly wide-spread use of reusable metal straws and the return of glass over plastic bottles. Public interest is the catalyst that will continue to drive resources toward waste management practices. Do your part, choose planet over plastic.

Take your Pledge today.

Exhibition Events, Activities & Virtual Programs

Join the Nauticus team for special events, virtual programs and activities within the Planet or Plastic? exhibition that are included with general admission/membership. Virtual programs are free and will be streamed on the Nauticus Facebook.


This exhibition is hosted by the Nauticus foundation and made possible by our partners:

Media Partner: