Plastic Input into the Ocean – Release Day

So, today (and this week!) has been a bit surreal. I had my first-ever paper published in Science, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. I had more interviews than I ever knew were possible in a 3-day time span… we also had a press briefing at AAAS – it went great. I thought I would post the transcript of the comments I made at the briefing here. I am so grateful I get to do a job that allows me to work on my passion and I remain hopeful about the future of our oceans.

Good morning everyone. My name is Jenna Jambeck and I am an assistant professor of environmental engineering from the University of Georgia. When I had to choose a focus in environmental engineering, I fell in love with the study of solid waste, which is trash, or better known as anything that you recycle or throw every day. The reason I felt waste was so different from designing water or wastewater facilities was that it so closely involved people. And people have strong reactions to it – especially when a waste management system might be physically close to them. Yet it is something we create every day and have to manage. So as I talk today, I will go over many numbers, but as I do, I hope you’ll keep in mind the same thing that I do – that there are always people behind these numbers.

It seems like we have been hearing a lot lately about the concerns over plastic in our oceans and estimates of plastic in the ocean. Research interest in this issue has grown tremendously in the last 10 years. And the results you’re hearing today arise from a scientific working group that was founded at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis 3.5 years ago. We are a diverse group – oceanographers, marine ecologists, solid waste experts, statisticians, industrial ecologists, polymer scientists and engineers. When we got together, our starting point was to ask ourselves – What are the major sources of plastic in the ocean? Quickly, we found out that that land-based inputs would be a major source. So we set out to find out how much it was.

Now what we did is different than the numbers you have heard before – those numbers estimate the amount of plastic already in the ocean – we call this “the standing stock”. What we looked at was an annual input – how much goes in each year. And this is exciting to report because this is the first time we have been able to connect the ocean to the land with a number, and I’ll explain more about this number but the way we are most comfortable reporting this is to say “We estimate that people added 8 million metric tons – and a metric ton is 1000 kilograms, so that’s 8.8 million American tons – of plastic to the ocean in 2010.”

Our methods for this estimate were to look at per person waste generation rates in 2010 from 192 countries with a coastline in the world. Because people’s activities nearest the coast are responsible for most of the plastic going into the water, we limited our analysis to a 50km strip of the coastline. From there, we looked at what percent of that waste is plastic, and what percentage of THAT is mismanaged waste (which means litter or when waste is not captured and dumped on the land). From there we had three scenarios of input into the ocean: low, mid and high. Our 8 million metric ton estimate is that mid-range scenario. 8 million metric tons of plastic is equal to 5 bags (like this) filled with plastic going into the ocean along every foot of coastline in the world. That… is HUGE.

And it can get worse. If we assume a business as usual projection with growing populations, increasing plastic consumption and increased waste generation, by 2025, this number doubles – we may be adding 17.5 million metric tons of plastic per year. If that happens, then our cumulative input over time from 2010 to 2025 is projected to be 155 million metric tons.

The purpose of this work was to create this global estimate. But remember what I said before – behind these numbers are people, people living in culturally and socially different countries of the world. And we had to use country-level data to build out our framework – so we do indeed have a list of countries that are top contributors. And this has been getting a lot of attention so I want to be clear about how we think about this list – it is not about finger pointing, but examining things that strongly influence a country’s rank in this list: first, the population density in the coastlines – how many people are generating waste within 50 kilometers of the sea? Next, how MUCH plastic waste is each person generating? And finally the mismanaged waste percentage plays a role – how much of what all those people throw away accidentally ends up in the ocean? So what you will find near the top are mostly middle income countries with rapidly growing economies that have not yet been able to develop waste management systems to handle the increase in waste generation that comes along with economic growth. There is one high income country on the list, the United States, and while our waste management systems are well-designed and very effective, and the only mismanaged waste is from litter, we have a large coastal population and a large waste generation rate.

We know the solutions: we must cut back on plastic waste generation and increase the amount we capture and manage properly. That sounds simple. We know how to design waste management systems, but waste management is not just a design problem, it is also has social and cultural dimensions. So we need to work together at a combination of local and global initiatives… and we need global participation from various stakeholders, and based upon the diverse global interest in this work – I am optimistic this will happen. By changing the way we think about waste, valuing the management of it, collecting, capturing and containing it, we can open up new jobs and opportunities for economic innovation, and in addition, improve the living conditions and health for millions of people around the world and protect our oceans.


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Why eXXpedition 2014?

eXXpedition TeamSynchronicity. After e-meeting Emily Penn this summer to discuss the Apple video and her work, we thought that we might one day work together… little did we know it would happen so soon! Here I am, resident engineer, an addition to eXXpedition, the all-women’s voyage across the Atlantic to make the unseen seen…

What does that mean?

Scientific research. My main goal is to sample the microplastic in the ocean along our route. We will use a trawl, or net, that gets pulled along the surface of the ocean for a recorded time and distance. We will do this one to three times per day. The net collects plastic fragments that are 333 micrometers or larger. Then we count the plastic fragments and can calculate their density along that sample path in the ocean. I will also do some additional particle size distribution work and identification of resins. Our data will add to the global database of marine debris begun by our collaborators, Sea Education Association and 5 Gyres.

The mobile app, Marine Debris Tracker, that I co-developed. The app will allow us to collect data on our microplastic sample locations and paths, as well as when we observe macrodebris (any debris we see floating on the ocean surface). We will take turns observing the ocean systematically while sailing (same station from the boat for timed periods) to note when we see floating debris. The Marine Debris Tracker data will be uploaded into the active website for viewing every 24 hours, so you can see all of the sampling work we have completed and all of the floating plastic debris we have found.

Where does our garbage go? Waste management is so often unseen… And where do small islands put their trash? In both of our port countries and cities, Lanzarote to start, and Martinique to end, I will be doing solid waste management assessments. I will be exploring the methods of waste management on these small islands, recycling capacity, collection methods, and disposal. I will be interviewing people willing to talk about the unique situation of dealing with waste management, and specifically plastic waste management in an island setting. I will document the findings with interviews, photographs and quantitative data. My goal is to build awareness of the problem and to the connection of waste management and marine debris.

Citizen Science. We will be teaching other vessels on the UNESCO Atlantic Odyssey about Marine Debris Tracker so these citizens can also contribute data to the global database. Some people in the Odyssey are already conducting citizen science as they help to release buoys that will provide ocean current data to global research efforts. With Marine Debris Tracker, they will also be able to tell us when they see marine debris or litter.

Pushing limits, growing. Any scientific open ocean voyage is an opportunity to get back into the field and conduct hands-on research. I don’t get to do that as often in my role as an assistant professor any more. This is a unique opportunity to conduct research first-hand. In addition, I will help in other working roles on the boat, including sailing. While science and engineering are my passions and I can pass that on to others, I expect to learn from the passionate sailors on board just how we get this vessel across the ocean. I also can’t wait to check out the engineering on the ship – energy (solar, wind), water supply, wastewater, and waste management in our little microcosm will be interesting.

Engagement in STEAM (science technology engineering mathematics + art). Studies show that we are better off with a diverse community of scientists studying problems, but women are still lacking in the workforce, and especially in engineering. An all-women crew of diverse ages, backgrounds, etc. shows girls and women that anyone can do this. I went into environmental engineering in college because I cared about the environment… I didn’t even really quite understand what engineering was at the time. And there were many instances where I was challenged to work well beyond what I thought I could do, but I never gave up. And then I became completely fascinated by waste: quantities, qualities, management, and it’s very intense and complex relationship with people. I love that I can work on global issues, like waste management and plastic in our oceans. It is my hope that girls and boys will see what we do and think “I could do that too.” Because, they can!

Toxics in our environment. This is where it gets a bit personal too, although we study some of both eco- and human-toxicology in environmental engineering. We personally limit our family’s exposure to pesticides, hormones and antibiotics in food. We limit plastic and other products with our family that could release BPA or phthalates. Cancer, often caused by a combination of genetics and exposure, has touched many of my family and friends. Two of my closest woman mentors in my family passed away from cancer: my step mother from brain cancer and my cousin from breast cancer. Friends younger than I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. There are countless more people I know that have either succumbed to or beat cancer. While exposure to toxics is not the only cause, it certainly can contribute. And, while some people choose to put some toxics into their bodies, when people are unaware of them in items they use or in their environment, it is not a choice. Becoming aware empowers people to take more control over what they are exposed to. I dedicate this voyage to my step mom and my cousin and to all those that have passed on, been touched by, or are battling cancer right now.

My family. When I got the message about this opportunity, I forwarded it to my husband, since we are partners in life and especially in parenting right now. He called me in less than 2 seconds to say, “You need to do this!” Even though we have two young boys (age 6 and under), and our days and nights are adventurous, to say the least, he is willing to take all that on while I am gone for me to be able to do this work. And I would do the same for him – we both support each other in our gifts and callings in life. My boys, who don’t quite understand the time frame yet but say they will miss me while I am gone, want me to bring back fossilized Megalodon teeth(!). They both think mommy is going on a great adventure though. I am connecting with my older son’s class at school so they can follow the journey and learn about marine debris. My younger son is talking about how our hearts are forever connected no matter where we are. I have the best family and I love them all so much!

We set sail November 16. You can follow the live ship track here. And check out the Marine Debris Tracker website map to see where we sample. I’ll be posting blog posts to the eXXpedition site and here as well.

eXX track








Bon voyage!


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My Marine Debris Story

I am so grateful for what I get to do every day, research and teaching mostly, but also service and outreach too. In honor of the International Coastal Cleanup this weekend, I decided to share the story of how I came to conduct work on marine debris.

Tracking Trash with Tots

I have been trying to work on our global marine debris problem for 14 years. When I went back to the University of Florida for my PhD in 2000, I was pondering research topics… I read about marine debris and had an “aha!” moment – I care so much about this! This topic marries my love of waste management/trash/garbage and my love of the ocean! I want to help end this problem! However, there was no funding. I was told that unless I was in Hawaii or Alaska, no one cared about marine debris. I went on to research and write my dissertation on the disposal of CCA-treated wood (a topic I grew to feel very passionate about as well). However, I did not give up on marine debris.

I took a GIS class in 2000 and decided that I would ask the Center for Marine Conservation (now the Ocean Conservancy) if I could have their International Coastal Cleanup data for the state of Florida. To my surprise, they said yes, and also invited me to their headquarters in Virginia to talk more about data (although it was a funding and research end at that point, it was inspiring to meet Seba Sheavly, an amazing marine debris pioneer). I created a map of the data categorized into sources of debris and did a small proximity analysis. I published a conference paper and presented it at the Air and Waste Management Association’s Annual Meeting (If I had been a professor there might have been snickers in the room, but I think they were kind to a student on this very “outside the box” topic). At this time, I believe I was the only environmental engineer specializing in solid waste to research marine debris.

After a post-doc at the US EPA upon my graduation, I landed a research professorship at the University of New Hampshire. The Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act was introduced in 2005 and passed by Congress in 2006. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is authorized by Congress to work on marine debris through this Act. In 2006, the first solicitation from from the fledgling NOAA marine debris program was on the street – it was for a community-based grant. In New Hampshire, there was this amazing non-profit called Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation and I was able to get a meeting with the Executive Director, Jen Kennedy. She and I had a great chat and a collaboration was born. We were so inspired and excited, we proposed more work than we should have for $13,000 (it did require a 1:1 match). But we accomplished it all and UNH was supportive (I had other more traditional work, and this was a good public outreach project). We were awarded our first grant and I knew this was the start of something big, new ideas and new opportunities for us both. Jen and I made a great team – she runs an amazing education and volunteer program and we looked at making data compilation and analysis more robust. One project led to another, and another… I was able to further my mapping of marine debris and develop technology tools (using PDAs at the time) for mapping individual debris components (for the first time) in a joint project with the Coastal Response Research Center (CRRC) at UNH. Oil spill and marine debris emergency response were integrated in another project and presented at a CRRC workshop we organized. We wrote a paper and I presented it at the IEEE/MTS meeting in Vancouver. It was well received, but lost among the shuffle of the many talks at the huge meeting.

However, I did get a call from the National Academies to write an appendix on derelict fishing gear waste management for their book, Tackling Marine Debris in the 21st Century. I was still a unique solid waste researcher who also worked in marine debris. Then I got a new job (tenure track!) at the University of Georgia. A large cooperative agreement solicitation came out from NOAA. I proposed a three-state regional initiative called the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative (SEA-MDI). The purpose was to raise the profile of marine debris issues in the region of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. I also proposed to create an app based upon the PDA work I had done previously (PDAs were obsolete, but smartphones were everywhere and would work even better!). The Ocean Conservancy and I were the only two entities funded under that solicitation. I had to pinch myself. The regional initiative was successful and accomplished exactly what it was supposed to, it sparked programs in the three states with seed grants and then the programs grew into amazing lives of their own, e.g., the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s Marine Debris Initiative and UGA MAREX Project SORT. The app was co-developed with the technical programming skills of a colleague (Dr. Kyle Johnsen) and grad students. The first version of Marine Debris Tracker was released in 2010.

The app has had amazing success with more than 10,000 downloads and attention from media including NBC News, Scientific American, Sci-Starter, Treehugger, NYT Green Blog, Smithsonian, local news, and then the app was mentioned by Emily Penn, expedition leader and advocate, in Apple’s promotional video for their Worldwide Developer Conference as an “App that you can’t live without.”  It got press in Mashable. Data collection increased. We have over 35,000 data points logging 390,000 items. Data is added daily by our amazing users and citizen scientists. And we are working on a new and improved version to be released soon, so stay tuned.

I have conducted a lot of outreach related to the app. As some examples, I participated in the California Ocean Science Trust Citizen Science Workshop. I have presented at the Global Waste Management Symposium, presented to the internal NOAA citizen science group and recently proposed a talk at the inaugural Citizen Science Association Conference. The NOAA Marine Debris Program has blogged about the App and about my Tots Track Trash project. My students and I presented posters at Jekyll Island Green Screen Events, in 2013 and 2014, along with a screening of Into the Gyre in collaboration with the EcoFocus Film Festival. I try to tell anyone who might remotely listen about the importance of the marine debris problem and how they can help by telling us when they see litter or debris with Marine Debris Tracker (and encouraging others to do so as well). And don’t think that if you are inland, you can’t use it – our most active individual tracker (second on this list) collects all his data in Omaha, Nebraska.

About a year after the app came out, I was contacted by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) that they were running a scientific working group on marine debris. Was I willing to be a member with world renowned scientists on this outstanding interdisciplinary project? Uh, yes! The PIs of the working group are Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association and Steven Gaines of University of California Santa Barbara Bren School. After nearly three years of working together, there are a multitude of papers coming out of this working group, and I had the honor of leading one paper on the input of plastic to the ocean from global waste management. This is a number that has never been calculated before, but we tackled the challenge in a very scientific and systematic way. But there is more than just this number, but I can’t discuss more while the paper is under review. I’ll update this post when it gets published.

Getting involved in a research topic that not many people cared about at first was not easy, but that is changing. We are in critical times considering our environment, and waste management and plastic in the oceans are important global concerns. It has taken persistence, hard work, and time to get to this point, but I also feel like it is just the beginning…

…we have a lot more work to do!

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Interview with Matthew Lisiecki (MPA Candidate 2013, NYU)

Matthew, an MPA student at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, contacted me about six weeks ago and asked to do an online interview. Matt is currently studying open government and innovation in a class with Beth Noveck (former head of the White House’s Open Government Initiative). He is using the class as an opportunity to study innovation in the field of environmental policy (which is his particular area of interest). He had an assignment to identify and interview an innovator in his area of interest, and he contacted me. I readily agreed – I enjoy helping students, I love chatting with new people about our research, and honestly, I was honored he asked me (this being my first ever online interview too!). I also asked him how he found me, as I think it is really amazing how people do find us on the interwebs these days… and he replied that he first found me through the WeRecycle App I co-created for the US EPA’s Apps for the Environment Challenge, and then looked at this website and blog. He also read my interview with Waste360. I think that “open access” through blogging and outreach through websites and social media are really positive things for professors to do… and it is important for our work since we are trying to make an immediate impact on the world.

I was excited to see the work that Matt was doing for his class (see their blog) and looked closer at what Beth Noveck is doing at NYU: The Governance Lab (GovLab) is at the forefront, pioneering the issue of open governance. In their words, GovLab brings together exciting minds from academia, government, and the private sector to consider the impact of technology on democratic institutions. Right on! This a big part of what we do in our research group! I believe that technology can re-engage citizens in issues they felt disconnected from previously, and ultimately, that was my goal with tools like Marine Debris Tracker, WeRecycle, and our smart recycling bin. Engaging citizens and re-connecting them so they feel ownership of our world, and empowered to help sustain it, will ultimately make us more sustainable. It is kind of a paradox in environmental engineering – while technology allowed us to greatly improve our sanitation, water and waste management, it also disconnected us from it. We no longer walk to a water source (e.g., river or well) to get water. If we had to, I bet we would be really careful about how much water we used for any little task. We simply turn a faucet on and fresh clean water comes out! But do you know how much effort, time and energy goes into making that clean water? And that it is important to conserve it? Without that connection to the source (allowed by great advances in engineering and technology), it can be difficult to get people to conserve water, energy, use less waste, etc. Especially when all of these resources are managed and operated by the government… people feel somewhat helpless to feel like they make a difference. But technology can re-engage them to realize that they do, and as a community, they can have a huge impact… on so many levels! I believe people and communities will be a part of our environmental engineering solutions in the future.  I encourage you to check out the amazing work at GovLab and I discuss some of these issues in the interview with Matt (below).

Matt is a really great guy and we chatted quite a bit before we even began the interview. As we were starting the interview, I asked how long he wanted me to spend on each question. He said there was no time limit (he was going to edit), so I was not very concise! But it was a lot of fun to be asked about the work I feel so passionate about and I tend to enjoy talking about all the exciting things we are doing in our research group. Although, I have to admit, I found it difficult to just talk to the screen and my office (messy since cleaning is low on my priority right now as I work towards tenure!) is not set up well for video chat (awkward camera location). But we managed and Matt did a great job putting it all together in a post on his class blog… well two blog posts. So head over to the blog (where there are other great posts too!) and check out the interview Part I

Interview Part I

and Part II..

Interview Part II

It is a great way to hear more about what we do in our research group and thanks again, Matt, for your interest in our work!

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Green Screen

I recently went to Jekyll Island to meet with my Georgia Sea Turtle Center collaborator and attend the Green Screen event put on by EcoFest Film Fesitval, Georgia Sea Grant, and Jekyll Island.

Baby turtles at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center

Baby turtles at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center

I brought along undergraduate student Abby Stern to help present two posters we made. The event was free and open to the public. I met many people I have worked with, but had not met yet, and also saw familiar faces. At the poster session and reception, we were able to talk to the attendees about the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative and our useful mobile app to map marine debris, Marine Debris Tracker.

Abby Talking to Surfrider Foundation about SEA-MDI and our app Marine Debris Tracker

Abby Talking to Surfrider Foundation about SEA-MDI and our app Marine Debris Tracker

Then we all went in to watch the outstanding movie, Chasing Ice. An estimated 800 people attended (well over the projected 300!).

2013-02-16 18.40.38

Chasing Ice Attendees

The movie was followed by an excellent panel and dialog.

2013-02-16 20.36.48

Chasing Ice Panel Discussion

As my first time to Jekyll Island, it was a fun and productive trip.

Marine Debris Tracker in Action

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Commingled Conversations

I was recently interviewed by Steve Averett of Waste Age Magazine. It was a fun interview, not any questions about my research, but little peeks into my personal world and my opinions. The post was put together well – with a link to the Star Wars Scene I refer to… and I didn’t know the garbage compactor monster had a name! Dianoga. For the full interview see here >>>

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The UGA College of Engineering is Launched

It is so exciting to be a part of Georgia Engineering today! The new College of Engineering was officially launched on July 1, 2012. Our inaugural Dean is Dr. Dale Threadgill, who has written an inspirational welcome to the College. The new college is created to build an academic environment that fosters innovative partnerships while offering engineering education in a liberal arts environment. Preparing students for careers devoted to the integration of discoveries from multiple fields so they become leader-engineers in the state and nation.  The College is offering:

Undergraduate degrees in eight majors:

  • Agricultural Engineering
  • Biological Engineering
  • BioChemical Engineering
  • Civil Engineering
  • Computer Systems Engineering
  • Electrical & Electronics Engineering (First class in Fall 2013)
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering (First class in Fall 2013); and
  • Graduate studies at MS and PhD levels in all engineering fields through seven graduate degree programs.

Visit the website for more information or get in touch with me directly with questions about the Environmental Engineering Program. Come be a part of the exciting new programs at UGA!

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Coretta Scott King Academy Visit

On Friday, June 1, we hosted about 45 students (grades 9-11) from Coretta Scott King Academy. The students toured several engineering laboratories, including ours. They heard all about environmental engineering and urban systems. They got see microbial fuel cells and examine marine debris samples up close. They also go to try out the UGA SmartRecycle Bin and they loved the eco-feedback. Finally they observed the real-time tracking of marine debris with the Marine Debris Tracker app. Many want to follow us on Twitter as well! It was a pleasure for us to talk about our research and hopefully inspire some of the students to ponder environmental engineering as a career. Thanks to Hillary Tanner for organizing this and for our undergraduate, Jenna Grygier, for participating as well!

Checking out the MFCs (in the back) and the SmartRecycle Bin with eco-feedback (front)

Discussing and observing beach cleanup marine debris up close

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Krishna Graduated!

Krishna successfully defended his masters thesis entitled: Continuous Power Genreation and Treatment of Landfill Leachate using Microbial Fuel Cells and completed all the requirements for graduation. He is the first student to graduate from the Jambeck Research Group at UGA and we are mighty proud of him! Congratulations, Krishna!

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WeRecycle is here – vote on US EPA Apps for the Environment!

Click Here to View our Entry and Vote!

Our newest app, another collaboration with Dr. Kyle Johnsen and his research group, WeRecycle, is here! UGA Press Release. WeRecycle is a platform to facilitate communication about waste between citizens and and their community. It consists of a community-built map of outdoor and event trash cans and recycle bins and a mobile app (available now on the Android Market!). WeRecycle supports the US EPA’s Recycling on the Go Initiative and allows you to:

1.Find the nearest trash can or recycle bin
2.Log or map trash cans or recycling bins for your community to use
3. Map temporary trash cans and recycle bins for large events (e.g., concerts, meetings, sporting events)
4. Express a need for a trash can or bin at a particular location
5. Hear from citizens who are requesting a public trash or recycle bin

The community based map is beginning at the University of Georgia where all of the trash cans and recycle bins have been logged. WeRecycle is developed by the University of Georgia Faculty of Engineering with funding from the Environmental Research and Education Foundation.

 WeRecycle fits in with EPA’s Seven Priorities for the Future by Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice. By using culturally relevant technology (one that everyone is familiar with) and allowing people to provide instant feedback to their community about trash and recycling, we will empower citizens. While people are participating in recycling and proper waste management, they are going to be less likely to contribute to litter and care more about their communities. It is a small step with potential big impacts while empowerment and ownership grow. This app will appeal to a broad spectrum of users including, but not limited to, citizens, school teachers and students, community planners, solid waste managers, event planners, and sustainability coordinators. 

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