Sunday, March 23, 2014

Finding Hope Among the Doubtful

I've been texting with an old high school friend lately from landlocked Elmira, NY.  Many of my friends and family are not quite sure about this work that I do.  Number one, I spend many weeks of the year out on the open water collecting surface samples, and two, that I actually think I am going to make a difference in plastic consumption.  He commented on how the debris field that was mistaken for the missing Malaysia plane should make people realize how much trash is in the ocean, though he added, "Its not going to change unless people stop being selfish gluttons . . ."  I responded, "That's why I work with little people on up to college students because they are the only hope for change."
Studying biofilm on plastic
I sometimes wonder myself, out of all the issues in the world, why would I try taking on something as popular as plastics and inadvertently the chemical and petroleum industry.  Couldn't my time and money be spent better on more worthy causes like child or animal welfare?  I don't have to think about it long before I get back into the saddle since the work that we are doing is for BOTH child and animal welfare.  Because only a small percentage of the over 80,000 chemical compounds in production has ever been tested for safety, it is vital that independent research groups make sure the plastics we use for our beverage and food containers are safe for the sake of our children.  Furthermore, we lose 300,000 sea birds and over 100,000 marine mammals annually due to plastic ingestion and/or entanglement.  We've got a lot of work to do to slow down these numbers and why we are committed despite the challenges.

Sorting  N. Atlnatic surface samples with students
On the flip side,  plastic marine debris provides such an array of research possibilities. I cannot think of a better way to spend my time than having undergraduates learn scientific method in the field while they observe beach dynamics through the collection of beach samples.  Others learn sophisticated programs besides Excel, like Grapher, and ArcGIS, all of which look good on their resumes.  Because plastic marine debris is visible, it does not necessarily require complicated instruments like what is needed to study mercury, PCB, or DDT and allows for students from many disiplines to participate in the research.  Plastic marine debris serves as a tool for students to observe, form hypothesis, quantify, and formulate conclusions based on the data they collect.  That said, some of our students do preform chemical analysis. One of our students proved that PAHs transfer from plastics into sea turtle gastric-intestinal juices.  Other students are setting up an experiment to see if micro zooplankton will selectively feed on plastic particulates while another student is attempting to answer the question, "Do plastic water bottles leach chemicals into their "ultra-filtered" water?"
Found in an upsidedown cup and released

Though we are making strides in answering these questions in our lab, it requires adequate funding, and with small donations we could do so much more.  Currently, Jack Johnson is donating $2,500 as match funds.  But without donations, we will not be able to collect the funds desperately needed to continue the educational work that can lead to better conservation efforts.  Please consider a $5 donation

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