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Meet the Scientific Co-Leads of National Geographic’s “Source to Sea” Plastic Initiative

As part of the Planet or Plastic? initiative, National Geographic is on a journey to better understand and document how plastic waste travels from source to sea and to fill critical knowledge gaps. Today, we’re excited to introduce the scientific co-leads of the National Geographic Society’s “Source to Sea” plastic initiative: Jenna Jambeck and Heather Koldewey....

As part of the Planet or Plastic? initiative, National Geographic is on a journey to better understand and document how plastic waste travels from source to sea and to fill critical knowledge gaps.

Today, we’re excited to introduce the scientific co-leads of the National Geographic Society’s “Source to Sea” plastic initiative: Jenna Jambeck and Heather Koldewey. Jambeck is an environmental engineer who has led foundational research on sources of plastic waste and the role of waste management globally in solving the problem of plastic pollution. Koldewey is a marine biologist who has spearheaded several interdisciplinary and innovative solutions to plastic pollution in communities worldwide.

Jambeck and Koldewey will lead an international, interdisciplinary team in developing a scientific plan for the “Source to Sea” plastic initiative, starting with an initial expedition to study the type and flow of plastic in a river system. Through the expedition, Jambeck and Koldewey will work with National Geographic and international partners to provide science-based, actionable information to help local and national governments, NGOs, businesses and the public more effectively invest in and implement innovative solutions to the plastic waste crisis.

We caught up with Jambeck and Koldewey to learn more about this project, what inspires them and everyday tips for using less single-use plastic.

NGS: What inspired you to work in your field?

JJ: Besides having a strong environmental ethic since I was a child growing up in very rural Minnesota, I have been continuously inspired by the human component of the solid waste (trash, rubbish) management field. From the people that work every day to collect our waste from the curb, sort it and dispose of it at facilities, to the millions of pickers working in often horrific conditions around the world, to the fact that you and I make choices every single day that impact our waste stream — the human component of this issue that is often literally and figuratively pushed away (because no one wants to deal with it) is what continues to fuel my passion for my work around the world.

HK: A love of animals (I initially wanted to be a vet) and the ocean — I’ve had my head in a rockpool from an early age! I’ve always enjoyed problem-solving and trying new approaches, meaning I’ve developed a diverse portfolio of conservation projects that have the common ingredients of science, optimism, collaboration and an absolute determination to make a difference.

NGS: Tell us what’s important/exciting about this project.

HK: This project is important as it is addressing a major gap in scientific knowledge to address a globally significant conservation issue, which appeals to my quest for science-based solutions. It’s novel because it’s interdisciplinary, with environmental engineers working alongside ecologists, social scientists, tech experts, educators and communicators, who bring new approaches, insights and perspectives.

JJ: I feel it is important to further connect people to and raise awareness about the fact that our activities and the waste we generate on land impact our environment, waterways and the ocean. In this process, we are collecting critically needed data, not only to better characterize and comprehend this issue, but also to work alongside communities to better understand and address the issue globally. My hope is that this project can empower governments, corporations and citizens to work towards context-sensitive solutions to this issue, shifting the paradigm of how we think about waste, eliminating or reducing what we don’t need, improving what we do need and creating a more circular materials management system. In addition, this issue is intimately tied to larger sustainability development goals of improving health, well-being and gender equality.

NGS: What’s the most shocking fact/statistic you’ve learned/discovered about plastic waste?

JJ: I have participated in the calculation of several shocking global statistics about this issue. One of the most staggering that I’ve helped uncover is that we have produced 8 billion metric tons (MT) of plastic on this planet since 1950 (equal to 80 million blue whales) and we have had to manage 6.4 billion MT of that as waste — yet we have only recycled 9 percent of it. By far, I think the plastic waste statistic that stuck with me the most is our estimate of plastic entering the ocean globally is 8 million MT per year, or about a dump truck of plastic every minute.

HK: That plastic is absolutely everywhere anyone has looked in the ocean, from our local beaches to the deepest and most remote wilderness areas.

NGS: Why should people care about plastic waste in our ocean?

HK: Because we put it there. The ocean matters, as it makes life on Earth possible. Plastic waste in our ocean is killing ocean wildlife, impacting every level of the food chain, it’s a growing health risk to people, and is increasingly impacting our economy. It’s also a problem we can solve and involves pretty much everyone on the planet.

JJ: The ocean is more than a beautiful environment to experience, it produces half the oxygen we breathe, it is essential to our life on land, not just the animals that live in it. Besides the way that plastic waste spoils the view and serene feeling of the ocean for us, plastic impacts the animals in the ocean, from filling the bellies of seabirds to whales and turtles, and damages coral. We now find plastic waste in every place we look in the ocean — floating on the surface to the depths — and it is even there when we get to places in the ocean we have never been before. Beyond the ocean, we don’t want mismanaged plastic in any environment, as it impacts animal health and us, again, not just from a visual standpoint, but through drainage and flooding on land as well.

NGS: What is one tip you have for someone wanting to cut down on their use of single-use plastic?

JJ: Start with one thing you have the ability to change. If you have access to clean drinking water, commit to using a reusable bottle every day, and keep at it until it becomes such a habit that you feel like you left an essential item at home if you forget it (speaking from experience!). But forgive yourself if you are not perfect while working up to this one thing, because even if you forget, all the times you did remember made a difference. After bottles, you can move to bags and other packaging as you’re able to. If this is hard, think about why it is difficult and how would you like to see the world differently. Then, try and make things easier by advocating for that change in your community, with companies and with your friends. After working on this issue for more than 17 years, I am seeing that collective actions like these have the power to create change and make a difference.

HK: Make a start — today. The choices you can make and how much you can avoid single-use plastic will be different depending on where you live and your lifestyle, so you won’t necessarily be able to eliminate everything easily or immediately, but don’t let that put you off as everyone can make a difference and every piece of single-use plastic that you cut down on is a positive step.

NGS: Anything else you’d like to add?

HK: We have an unprecedented opportunity to solve this global challenge, and the time is now. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen governments around the world commit to eliminate single-use plastic at a national level, companies removing plastic from their products and supply chains, technology advances and people everywhere driving change and innovation. Plastic pollution has been in the news on a daily basis, giving unprecedented attention to the ocean. We need to keep the focus and pressure on this topic to drive these commitments to action and to reverse the 60 years of misuse of the extraordinary material that is plastic. I’m looking forward to working with co-lead Jenna Jambeck and the team at National Geographic to provide science-based information that will engage citizens and help policymakers, businesses, and NGOs implement solutions to this growing crisis.

JJ: I am so proud and excited to be working with co-lead Dr. Heather Koldewey, who is an amazing scientist. Koldewey started the successful #OneLess campaign in London and the positively impactful Net-Works recycling and poverty-alleviation project in the Philippines that geographically connected us from London to Georgia before we even met in person! I also look forward to using the tool I codeveloped at the University of Georgia in 2010, Marine Debris Tracker, for scientific data collection of litter in our field work on land and in the water. Finally, I am so honored that I get to work with all the incredible scientists in the context of the long history, robust science and unparalleled storytelling reputation of National Geographic.

Hear more from Jambeck and Koldewey by watching the recording of their “Planet or Plastic?” panel discussion from the 2018 National Geographic Explorers Festival here. Learn more about the ways National Geographic is working to tackle the plastic waste crisis here.

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