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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