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

As a marine biologist, I was going to study where these little seabirds were getting their food. I had put tracking devices on the birds. They looked like electronic backpacks. The idea was to collect the backpacks when the birds came back from their food flights. I would then retrieve the data. The backpacks would show where they had flown to while out to sea.

I hadn’t counted on the backpack trackers falling off the birds into the ocean. But, that’s exactly what happened. My project was ruined! Or was it?

a little auk

I had to think fast. Then it came to me. I may not be able to track where they got their food, but I could analyze what they’d eaten. When the birds came back to land, I caught them. 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. Glamorous!

While waiting to have my samples analyzed at the lab, I came across some troubling news. Another researcher had learned that parent birds were bringing back plastic for their chicks to eat. Would I find plastic in my poop samples, too?

Justine Ammendolia holds a little auk.

Career Change

I returned home to think about these things. I live in Newfoundland in eastern Canada. This island is as far east in North America as you can get. The ocean and fishing play a very important 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 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? I had to figure this out before tackling the bigger question. How can we stop plastics from getting into oceans?

I became a garbage detective. My research partners and I decided to create a “plastics profile” of seven beaches in Newfoundland. What was there? Where was it coming from?








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

Over time, a beach shows you its personality by the types of plastic that end up there. Some beaches have lots of plastic foam from take‑out containers. Others have fishing gear, like plastic ropes and nets.

One beach had a tiny plant, struggling to grow past the mounds of trash. Then I looked a little closer.

Detective Work

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

To most people, ocean pollution means water bottles or plastic bags. We find other trash, too: metal, glass, rubber, even lumber.

a plastic plant

Bits and Pieces

It turns out, the plant was plastic! It was one of those fake plants that you put in a fish tank. How disappointing!

Most of the plastics we find are tiny. They’re called microplastics.  This is any piece of plastic that is less than five millimeters in size. They are hard to identify since they have lost their original shape. Also, they leave few clues to where they come from.

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

Still, we were beginning to make connections between big pieces of garbage and microplastics. One beach, for example, was littered with thin, plastic threads. The threads were coming from frayed fishing ropes! Sometimes ropes get frayed and burnt from sun exposure. They break free from ropes and end up on the beaches.