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UGA professor addresses plastic waste in academic book, reader-friendly blog

(Photo from U.N. Environmental Program via Inger Anderson, twitter.com.)

By David Pendered

A UGA professor known internationally for her work on plastics in waterways brings the issue home in a way that helps everyday folks understand the dangers presented by plastic waste.

In the scientific community, Jenna Jambeck, a professor at the University of Georgia, is regarded for her work on plastic waste and marine debris, as well as an app she co-created to allow citizen scientists to add findings about plastic debris in their communities.

A new report Jambeck helped craft reflects this serious side of her work. Jambeck served on the committee that oversaw production of the upcoming publication by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine. “Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste” is due out this Spring and is available now in a pre-publication version.

Among the recommendations that comprise an entire chapter are calls for a reduction in the production and use of plastics. Congress has been considering such a measure since March. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) is the only Georgia lawmaker to co-sponsor the proposal, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. Legislation has been filed in the House and Senate

Oceana is among the conservation organizations that have an office in Georgia and have endorsed the recommendations in the “Reckoning” book.

“We can no longer ignore the United States’ role in the plastic pollution crisis, one of the biggest environmental threats facing our oceans and our planet today,” Oceana’s plastics campaign director Christy Leavitt said in a statement. “This report shows that much of the plastic waste that threatens critical ecosystems, wildlife, and human health around the globe originates here in the U.S., and our country’s leaders have a responsibility to change that.”

Meanwhile, Jambeck strikes a more accessible tone in her blog. The most recent entries take readers to a canal in Louisiana:

“Thursday started out with a scoop of trash from the Carlotta Street boom in Baton Rouge… Just looking at it, we saw a lot of foam cups, bottles, and a few random soccer and footballs. The trash from the trap was to be sorted by some very dedicated LSU students a few days later.”

And so, with a quick sketch in an entry on April 19, Jambeck tells a story familiar to many as she invites readers to join her and her family on a trip along the main stem of the Mississippi, from Louisiana to Minnesota.

Baton Rouge was a starting point of the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative, which expects to involve thousands of citizen scientists gathering information on plastics pollution along the length of one of the world’s great waterways, the Mississippi River.

The initiative also is cited in the upcoming publication. The project appears in the section that outlines the tracking of plastic materials, which the report contends must occur if oceans are to be rid of plastic debris.

The authors determine that a shortage of information about the pathways of plastic, from origin to disposal, is a hurdle that has to be overcome.

“This report illustrates the limited, or absent, data from which to inform and implement effective plastic intervention actions…” it reads. “There is no national-scale monitoring system, or ‘system of systems,’ to provide a baseline to track important sources, pathways, and sinks at the current scale of public or governmental concern.”

Two approaches exist to gathering the necessary information, according to the book. One involves government-sponsored studies, such as NOAA’s Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project. The other involves citizen scientists, such as the debris tracking that’s made possible by the app Jambeck devised with Kyle Johnsen, a UGA computer engineering professor who heads the Georgia Informatics Institutes.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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