In order to imagine the volume of the 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean annually, just picture standing on the shore and seeing five grocery bags stuffed with plastic on every foot of coastline.

This image is how Dr. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineering professor in the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute, helps people understand the gravity of the planet's pollution problem.

Plastic is not biodegradable, and like Styrofoam, it only fragments into smaller pieces overtime, which is especially problematic in oceans. 

“What we find mostly find [in the ocean] is smaller particles of plastic. The two biggest impacts to animals are entanglement and ingestion,” Jambeck said. “Even smaller particles can look like food, plastic bags look like jellyfish to turtles, and they eat plastic, and since it doesn’t biodegrade, it doesn’t digest, so they either have to regurgitate or they starve to death because they feel full but are provided no nutrition. 

The professor said plastic is now being seen at the bottom of the food chain in plankton, and scientists do not know the possible implications of plastic working its way up the food chain.

Jambeck is an expert on the subject. Her 2015 study of plastic pollution has sparked interest in companies hoping to curtail the yearly waste of 275 million metric tons of plastic.

One company, Norton Point, was inspired to make sunglasses out of plastic recovered from coastal areas. The founders consulted with Jambeck on how to recycle plastic they extracted, learning that polymer type must be consistent across production. Jambeck’s own pair is made from the polymer used in plastic jugs and detergent bottles found on the Haitian coast.

Jambeck also said Dell Inc. has consulted with her regarding alternative uses for ocean plastic and has begun making shipping trays made of 25 percent ocean plastic. Other companies like Unilever and Method have begun investigating ways to use and prevent ocean plastic waste.

In addition, Jambeck is partnering with local companies.

To get rid of the issue of plastic’s lack of biodegradability, the New Materials Institute is working with Georgia company Meredian Holdings Inc. to create a new biodegradable plastic called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) out of canola oil, rather than the traditional source of petroleum.

Jambeck has received a $50,000 grant to test the biodegradability of PHA. She said her initial results have been promising and she expects to release her findings within the next year.

Jambeck’s research has also had an impact in the political arena. Data from her mobile app Marine Debris Tracker, was used to support a 2016 plastic bag ban in California. The app launched in 2011 with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is designed to identify trends in pollution in coastal areas.

Since its launch, it has received one million submissions of litter in coastal areas and even attention from Apple as an “app we can’t live without.” 

“My goal is to make waste obsolete. I want us to think of [every material] as a resource and how we can keep its value and keep it cycling through our economy and utilizing it, so we don’t have waste and have to worry [about unintended consequences],” Jambeck said.

Written by: Olivia Adams