Monday, December 30, 2013

The Plastic Art Exhibit Critiqued at Friend School of Wilmington

Three days after learning our traveling art exhibit won a grant from Project Aware, the art show debuted at  Friends School of Wilmington (FSW).  With two presentations back to back, one for 3rd to 5th and the other to 6th through 8th, these students wowed me with their conservation astuteness.  This was a shared learning experience.  Kudos to FSW, Cameron Francisco, and the Head of School Brenda Esch, the students were extremely informed about environment issues and the impacts of plastic pollution.  I was especially surprised by the 3rd to 5th graders. When I asked if they had heard of the North Pacific Garbage Patch, readying myself to explain, many of their hands went up.  One child explained it in such great detail I thought to myself, "I need him on my team!"

I watched with appreciation as the children looked over the art identifying pieces of plastics hidden in the waves and talking amongst themselves expressing which canvas was their favorite.  They especially took to the last two monstrous looking waves.  What I like best about presenting with the art show is the ability to engage with the audience instead of lecturing using a PowerPoint.  It helps tease out what people do and don't know about plastics.

My big take home was during a game I shared with them using one time use plastics.  The game was "Which Item is a Better Choice? (if you HAVE to use single use items)"  For the most part the students got it, but I did stump them a few times like when I held up in tandum a plastic soda bottle and a Styrofoam cup.  They shouted, "the Styrofoam cup would be better" and when I asked why, they replied, "Because Styrofoam isn't plastic."  Interesting.  It might stand to reason why they would think that.  It doesn't feel like any other kind of plastics.  What an awesome opportunity to clear that up and explain that out of all the plastics we use, Styrofoam readily leaches chemicals so we really shouldn't eat or drink out of Styrofoam if we want to error on the side of safety.  This exercise gave me the opportunity to explain, if you have to choose between the two, take the plastic bottle and make sure it gets into a recycle bin.  Styrofoam is not typically recyclable especially here in Wilmington, NC and it isn't sturdy enough for multiple uses.

Lastly, I shared with them a bin of plastic fragments collected off a beach in Hawaii. The fragments are the remnents of plastics that either washed out or got lost at sea that became embrittled due to the sun photo-degrading the plastics and the waves busting them up into pieces.  If I had a camera on me, I would have loved to have gotten a shot of all the little hands in the bin of "plastic sand."  Like me, they could not resist studying the fragmented plastic pieces as they tried to identify what some of the pieces might have once been.  With such enthusiasm, I think this research has a future!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thank you Project Aware and Voters, "What Goes Around, Comes Around" Wins Grant

It is rare when one non-profit will provide a contest that helps support another non-profit. This speaks volumes for Project Aware.  Over the past 10 days Plastic Ocean Project's science through art traveling art show has been in an international voting contest.  The votes have been tallied and thanks to so many of you for voting and sharing, POP will have the funding for gas to drive from the east coast to the west, stopping a cities along the way and sharing our What Goes Around, Comes Around exhibit. This show, created out of the plastics collected from nearly 10,000 nm of open ocean research, is full of educational information as well as ideas on what can be done about plastic pollution..  All of the contestants had stellar projects - believe me there are no losers in this competition. Project Aware, we are honored to be included in this contest. We were the only American project selected!

Since our show is to create a wave of awareness across the US, being handpicked encourages us even more that this is a worthy endeavor.  Thank you all for your votes, continued support, and membership to our blog.

On another generous note, where the unexpected financially supports another, please check out an article written about our junior ambassador Annelie Miller in the Mill Valley Patch Newspaper. Read how she not only voluntarily fundraised for Plastic Ocean Project, raising more than $700 for our work, but has been an activist in her school. Thank you again Annelie. You have made a big difference and you are only 12! We are stoked to see such hope through your generation

Sunday, September 8, 2013

North Atlantic Research with Help From a 12-year-old Sponsor

12 Open-Ocean N. Atlantic 2013 Samples with some of the biggest pieces we ever collect in our sampler
Six weeks ago, I returned from Bermuda with 12 more open-ocean samples all containing plastics.  We have been sampling the North Atlantic each summer four of the past five years with Dr. Maureen Conte, Woods Hole Institute, and now have a total of 46 samples. I have been in four oceans working with PlasticOceans.orgAMRF and 5 Gyres Institute and have helped collect a total of 210 surface samples, sadly all containing plastic fragments. What once came as a surpise to find all types of plastic in remote places on the planet, no longer shocks me.  Though I confess, I was holding out hope this year, that maybe, just maybe one sample in this remote area in the N. Atlantic would be plastic-free.  Now that would surprise me!  What was different that lead me to believe there was a chance? The ocean was much calmer than in previous years which we would expect to see more debris, but on the contrary, there seemed to be a marked difference in the amount of visual debris we saw floating by.  But what our surface sampler collected, made previous years appear scant.  So what did we find?  In the photo above, you are looking at the 12 vials loaded with plastic fragments smaller than 5cm, a white balloon (really!), plastic bag(another shocker), several bottle caps, lots of large fragments, and fishing gear, but the real kicker for me was scoring a milk jug ring. Can you find it in our stash?  It was serendipitous because the image below of the severely disfigured snapping turtle, Mae West, who had crawled through a milk jug ring when it was small, and due to the plastic's durability her body was forced to grew around it, is what influenced me to research this issue.

Mae West so named due to hour glass figure due to plastic milk jug ring
We have been fortunate to take students offshore over the years to learn how to collect samples and over the next several months, students from UNCW will learn how to process these samples in hopes of publishing the data from this long-term study.  Student involvement drives Plastic Ocean Project, Inc. to keep going and sometimes that drive comes from the most unexpected students.

A 12-year-old from the other side of the country, Annelie Miller, from  Mill Valley Middle School in California, decided she wanted to do something significant for the sake of our oceans in honor of World Ocean Day. She had been creating art out of non-recyclable materials as well as hand-painting pictures and notecards.  She sent a letter out to family and friends explaining the perils caused by plastic marine debris and asked that they purchase her art as a fundraiser for Plastic Ocean Project, Inc.  She must have sold a lot of her work because she raised over $700!  This donation that will help keep our research and outreach going.  Annelie has allowed us to post her painting found on Shutterfly, click here.  Thank you Annelie for your generosity, thoughtfulnes, and your passion for the sea. You have not only honored the ocean, but have helped us continue the work we do for the sake of our seas.  Annelie will be appearing on the with Diana Dehm.  Date and time TBA.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

1 Day of Sampling for Plastics in the N. Atlantic

Retrieving sediment trap
This is the fourth year Plastic Ocean Project is sampling roughly the same region of the North Atlantic gyre which is also where the longest running deep ocean time-series takes place called the Ocean Flux Program (OFP) headed up by Dr. Maureen Conte our lead scientist. Flux, meaning the variability in material transfer from the surface to the deep driven by the activity between the physical, biological, and chemical processes, and longest running meaning over the past 45 years.  One area in particular we will be visiting is BATS, (Bermuda Atlantic Time Series) where meteorological measurements have been ongoing since 1988.  There is never a dull moment out here.  I was up to 3am processing our 3rd surface sample our 1st day.

Bermudian students removing plastic from Sargassum
It is one of the calmest visits we have had out here, roughly 700 miles of the North Carolina coast.  It looks more like a calm lake than a 3.52 million km salty water-world.  We have seen trace amounts of Sargassum, a free floating golden seaweed, that we like to find in our sampling net so we can also study the ecosystem unique to this weed.  Because it floats as do some plastics, we have long thought it was an indicator – the more Sargassum, the more plastic.  But this voyage has punched holes in this hypothesis.   As our surface sampler skimmed the top 20 cm of water yesterday, the water looked super pristine devoid of natural and man-made debris. I had hope that this sample was going to come out of the water plastic-free.  

It would be the first in four oceans -210 samples total.  But alas, with less than 102 cm of Sargassum in our net, we found hundreds of plastic fragments along with a 12 cm piece of rope and the presumed piece of a crate about the size of a half dollar that rivals our low amount of Sargassum.  Imagine my disappointment.

The word for this is heterogeneity.  Though we understand that plastics share the same ocean influences as marine biota like plankton, Selps, Copepods, and algae, it does not necessarily mean if there is an abundance of one, there will be an abundance of plastics.  One thing is for certain though, if there is Sargassum, there will be plastics, not so much because Sargassum is an aggregator as much as it all just simply follows the same motion of the ocean.
On a lighter note, as I had mentioned, there are many different types of research going on around the clock.  The fun part has been having Matt Moffett here to not only film this research project for a feature film title, Plastic Seas, directed by Jeneene Chatowski, but he has lent a much need hand to the ongoing setup and deployment of the manta trawl.  You can find a trailer to the film on Clean Canteens website who is also sponsoring the film

Matt Moffet videographer of "Plastic Seas" 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

POP's art show, non-profit social media, and an unusual ocean pollution solution are on the move

Monteleone's conceptual art "What goes around, comes around"
As the human population begins to make the necessary connections that plastic is interfering with the natural world, more and more people are climbing on board to help educate, motivate, and create solutions to this growing problem.  Why? Because we are problem solvers as much as we are problem creators and that is what separates us from the natural world.  How is The Plastic Ocean Project (POP) making these connections? Through our traveling art show "What Goes Around, Comes Around," by launching our new logo, website and Facebook page, and by sharing ideas like 19-year-old, Boyan Slat, who is working on an invention for possible ocean cleanup.

Much of our U.S. populous is in landlocked areas and do not associate themselves with the problem of plastic ocean debris. Why would they when they are 100s of miles away from the ocean's edge?  But some people in these regions are making the connection that all rivers lead to oceans and that their plastics end up there from runoff.  They understand that we are all contributing to the problem and is why this art show has been  invited inland.   Last month, the POP's art show was at Guilford CollegeGreensboro, NC.  Currently, it is in landlocked Cortland, NY where people from Central NY will have the opportunity to see the plastics that were plucked from the open-ocean and from remote ocean islands thousands of miles away from the mainland.  The exhibit opened 4.4.13 with an open reception at 9 Main Street, Cortland NY at 7pm. Bonnie Monteleone will share her experiences and findings through art.  And next month it will be at 901 Pollock Street Gallery, New Bern on display with "The Gathering."  Our goal is to have it on exhibit at various locations across the U.S. until it reaches California.  (Anyone interested in having the display in their area can contact Bonnie Monteleone at

Wiggs and Jane Horner
Jane Horner with bottle installation

Another good example of people connecting people is in New Bern - fabulous river town in North Carolina. What started in Blake Wiggs' high school environmental class making art out of plastic bottles spread like gossip to the rest of the community.  The conceptual art, fittingly titled "The Gathering" is in collaboration with artist Jane Horner.  It consists of 1,500 beverage bottles to represent the number of beverage bottles used every SECOND in the US.  The group started meeting on Saturdays in order to finish this project by May 11th for the community Artwalk Festival.  Parents, who were dropping off there children began bringing their scissors, then more and more people from the community showed up to help.  It is a microcosm of the dialog spreading globally about plastic pollution and through art, much like Picasso's art against war - The Banality of Evil, it speaks volumes without saying a word.

Slat's Array prototype
On the social media front, Diana Dehms, Martha Lyons,  Kellie Johansen and Bonnie Monteleone have been teaming up to inspire the masses to join forces with the Plastic Ocean Project, Inc. and be the forerunners in freeing the oceans from the plastic menace.  At the helm is rear Admiral Leedert "Len" Hering, Sr. (U.S. Navy retired) whose conviction is, "If we can go to the moon, we can cleanup the oceans for the next generations."  It will take governments, military leaders, students, innovators, educators, non-profits, and fishermen working together to at least try.  Boyan Slat is one such inventor who designed the Array that scours the surface of the ocean removing plastic fragments.  He has come under scrutiny from other organizations for some of his overarching expectations on a device that hasn't seen the ocean yet and though some of the backlash is right on target, we support anyone putting forth the effort to try.  As the saying goes, "Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the people doing it."  Efforts should be made not just from reducing our use of plastic and stopping it from getting out to sea via runoff, but POP goes one step further in supporting the efforts of removing as much as plastic as possible that is already out there.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

UNCW Students Studying Beached Plastics

Emma Belcher entering beach sample data
The UNCW plastic marine debris research that started four years ago in the Sargasso Sea 700 miles off the coast of North Carolina has made its way to the coast of NC.  Over the past couple of semesters, students have been collecting beach samples of manmade materials and natural debris found in the wrack line to compare densities.  They are also learning how to type the plastics using FTIR instrumentation,  and Mass Spectrometry to analyze the plastics for adsorbed Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).   Dr. Brooks Avery oversees the beach sampling protocol, while Bonnie Monteleone works with students in our new lab space.  Over the past two years we have been nomads stealing space in three different labs, but as of January, we have scored a beautiful lab space in Dobo Hall courtesy of Dr. Seaton. (see images)

Misty Wilbanks shares turtle gastro-juices data with Emma 

Misty Wilbanks, highlighted in the Star News a few weeks ago, is a veteran undergraduate working up the plastics collected from our Sargasso Sea samples. Her Honors project, looking at the potential of POPs transferring from ingested plastics into sea turtle tissue, is especially unique because it requires collaboration with Dr. Pam Seaton from Chemistry, Dr. Amanda Southwood Willard from Biology, and the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Network.  Misty's hands-on experience has been valuable on many levels.  She not only is learning specialized instrumentation and the importance of collaboration, but she has also been able to train other students.

Jaclyn (Jackie) Smith bringing in beach sample into new lab

Jackie sorting out natural debris from manmade

To date, we have had 26 Direct Independent Study opportunities for students.  They learn scientific method in the field as well has how to manage their time.  Processing these samples is not trivial.  Going to the beach to collect samples is the easy part.  Dissecting the samples requires long hours in the lab.  The sample has to be dried, separated (the natural debris from the manmade materials), and weighed.  The students then separate the manmade debris by classification, then each classification weighed and counted.  The multi-dimensional data then needs to be entered into the data base.

Corina Cooling weighing dry sample
Corina Cooling preparing sample to dry

The collection of manmade debris not only is a great scientific educational tool, it also helps keep debris from washing back out into the ocean.  Plastic debris is known to be ingested by marine life as evidenced by the Bull Dolphin fish caught off the coast of Virginia not long ago.  (See photo below)

Fish caught with large plastic fragment, pudding cup and squirt gun in stomach.