Plastic bottles, cigarette lighters and pieces of Styrofoam aren’t exactly the first thing you want to see when you head to the beach. Not only is marine debris an eyesore, it’s becoming increasingly prevalent and showing up all over the world.

Jenna Jambeck, a professor of engineering at the University of Georgia, can attest to that, having been the first to quantify how much garbage enters the world’s oceans. Her study, published in “Science” in 2015, estimates that eight million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in our oceans every year.

“That’s equal to five grocery-size bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world going into the ocean every single year,” Jambeck said.

As part of her 2016-17 Public Service and Outreach Faculty Fellowship, Jambeck tackled the issue of marine debris in Georgia by collaborating with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to recruit students to collect data along the coast using the Marine Debris Tracker app.

Jambeck co-developed the Marine Debris Tracker (MDT) app to engage citizens in marine debris and litter data collection and prevention as part of a project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program in 2010. The app allows users to submit information about the type, amount and location of litter and debris items during routine cleanups anywhere in the world.

“Dr. Jambeck’s highly interdisciplinary work represents the type of impactful research and innovative technology that can help us identify and solve some of the most critical challenges facing society,” said Donald Leo, dean of the UGA College of Engineering.

To date, over one million items of debris have been removed and logged by individuals and groups using the MDT.

Katy Smith, the water quality program coordinator for Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, is training students at Glynn Middle School on how to use the app and coordinating monthly cleanups along U.S. Highway 17 in Brunswick, Ga.

“The MDT provides a fun and effective tool to engage young students,” Smith said. “Being able to see the positive impact they are having through maps, graphs and photos generated by the app instills a sense of accomplishment that they are proud to share with others in their community.”

So far, the students have removed 1,521 items of debris from approximately four acres of the marsh environment near Glynn Middle School.

Removing trash that’s already in the environment is important, but Jambeck stresses the need for a more proactive approach of educating individuals about the negative impacts in hopes of changing behaviors and stopping debris from entering the environment in the first place.

“If people are noticing litter items and tracking it with the Marine Debris Tracker, then maybe they will think twice the next time they are offered a single use plastic item or will remember to bring their bags or use a water bottle. It is these small changes, when taken collectively, that really do make a difference,” Jambeck said.

Jambeck is working with Smith to create educational materials that include information about ingestion and entanglement, and utilizing the MDT. The materials include modules that teach students how to analyze data sets and consider the source of the debris.

When finalized, these lessons will be available for teachers wishing to introduce the issue of marine debris to their students, and will tie in relevant principles of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics to lay a foundation for future innovation and leadership.

Writer: Emily Woodward, ewoodward@uga.edu, 912-598-2348

Contact: Jenna Jambeck, jjambeck@uga.edu, 706-542-6454