So, there I was in a remote part of Greenland. I was holding a tiny bird called a little auk in my hand. I was waiting for it to poop. This is not what I expected to be doing on my first major research expedition!
a little auk
I’m a marine biologist. I was going to study where these seabirds were getting their food. I had put tracking devices on them. I’d collect the devices when the birds returned from their food runs. The data would show where they had flown. I hadn’t counted on the trackers falling off and getting lost at sea. That’s what happened. Was my project ruined?
No! I couldn’t figure out where they got their food. But, I could figure out what they’d eaten. So, as the birds came back, I caught them and held them over my notebook and waited. When a bird pooped, I had my sample! Before I even tested my samples, though, I heard some troubling news. Parent birds were bringing back plastic for their chicks to eat.
Justine Ammendolia holds a little auk.
I live in Newfoundland in eastern Canada. This island is as far east in North America as you can get. The ocean and fishing are important to people on the island. But, I knew our shores were piling up with plastic.
I had a lot of questions. How much plastic was getting into the oceans? Where was it coming from? I had to figure this out before taking on the bigger question. How can we stop plastics from getting into oceans?
I became a garbage detective. My partners and I created a “plastics profile.” We began studying seven beaches in Newfoundland. What was there? Where did it come from?
Collecting plastic trash is important science for my team’s research. But it isn’t glamorous work!
To most people, ocean pollution means water bottles or plastic bags. But we find other things, too. We find metal, glass, rubber, even lumber. Some beaches have plastic foam from take‑out containers. Others have fishing gear, like rope and nets.
On one beach, I found a tiny plant, struggling to grow past the trash. Or so I thought.
Every month, we visit the same beaches. We record what types of garbage we find. This is not exciting work. It’s slow and grimy. There can be strong winds. It’s almost always wet. It can even be sad at times. But it’s a great way to see what’s there.
a plastic plant
Bits and Pieces
When I looked closer at the tiny plant, I saw that it was plastic, too! 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. They are any piece of plastic less than five millimeters in size. The plastic is hard to identify since it’s lost its original shape.
Still, we begin to make connections between big pieces of garbage and microplastics. On one beach, for example, we find thin, plastic threads. The threads were coming from frayed fishing ropes. When the ropes heated up in the sun, the threads broke free.
This handful of trash is made up of all single‑use plastic.