So, there I was in a remote part of Greenland, holding a tiny bird called a little auk in my hand, waiting for it to poop. Now before you ask, the answer is no. No, this is not what I expected to be doing on my first major research expedition.

a little auk

I had it all planned out. As a marine biologist, I was going to study where these little seabirds were getting their food from the ocean. I had put tracking devices on the birds. They looked like electronic backpacks. The idea was to retrieve the backpacks when the birds came back from their food runs. Then I could also retrieve the data, showing me where they had
flown to while out to sea.

I hadn’t counted on the trackers falling off of the birds and getting lost in the ocean. But, that’s exactly what happened. I panicked. My entire research project was ruined!

Or, was it? I had to think fast. How could I salvage this expedition? And then it came to me: I may not be able to track where they got their food, but I could certainly analyze what the birds had eaten.

So, as the birds came back to land, I gently held them over my notebook and waited. When a bird pooped, I had my sample. I did this 110 times for 110 samples. Who said science isn’t glamorous?

I took all my glorious poop samples back to the lab to see what the birds had eaten. While waiting for more funding to have my samples analyzed, I came across some troubling news. Another researcher had discovered that little auk parents were bringing back plastic for their chicks to eat. To discover that plastic pollution was present in such remote waters was a shock. It was a turning point for me.  

Justine Ammendolia holds a little auk.

Career Change

I returned home to think about these things. I live in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in eastern Canada. Newfoundland is an island that is as far east in North America as you can get. The ocean and fishing play a very important cultural role for the people on the island. But, I knew that our shores were also piling up with plastic.

It’s hard to solve a problem before you fully understand it. I had a lot of questions. How much plastic was getting into the oceans? Where was it coming from? What types of plastics were they? Only after figuring these things out could I tackle the bigger question: How can we stop plastics from getting into oceans?

I may be a marine biologist, but to tackle the plastic pollution problem, I had to become something else: a garbage detective. My research partners and I decided we needed to create a plastics profile of Newfoundland’s beaches. We would accomplish this by repeatedly surveying seven specific beaches
to study what was there and where it might be coming from.








Collecting plastic trash from the beach is important science for my team’s research. But it isn’t glamorous work!

Here’s an example: Some beaches have a lot of plastic foam—it can come from take‑out containers and packaging. Other beaches have a lot of fishing gear, like ropes and nets. Each beach is unique.

One beach we visited was littered with trash. Amid a pile of old food wrappers, I saw a tiny plant growing. How happy it made me to see a living thing, struggling to grow past the mounds of trash. Until I looked a little closer.

Detective Work

Every month, we visit the same beaches and record what types of garbage we find. This is not exciting work. It’s slow and tedious and grimy. There can be strong winds. It’s often wet. Okay, it’s almost always wet. It can even be a bit depressing sometimes. But I can’t think of a better way than this to get a handle on the problem.

When most people think of plastics pollution, they think of water bottles or plastic bags. We certainly do find trash like that. We find other things, too: metal, glass, rubber, cloth, even lumber. Over time, a beach shows you its personality through the types and amounts of plastic that end up there.

a plastic plant

Bits and Pieces

It turns out, the plant I was celebrating was actually a piece of plastic! It was one of those fake plants that you put in a fish tank. I was pretty disappointed.

Most of the plastics we find are tiny. They’re called microplastics. A microplastic is not a specific kind of plastic, but rather any piece of plastic that is less
than five millimeters in size.
For us, these are the hardest to identify since they have lost their original shape and leave few clues to where they come from.

This handful of trash is made up of all single‑use plastic.

Yet, through our work, we were beginning to make connections between big pieces of garbage and microplastics. One beach, for example, was littered with thin, plastic threads. At first, we were really puzzled. Where were these things coming from?

Then we figured it out: The threads were coming from frayed fishing ropes! Sometimes ropes get frayed and burnt from sun exposure. When threads break free from rope, they end up on the beaches and in the water.