Telling the Story of Trash

A clear jar is passed through the classroom, its brightly colored plastic contents tumbling around as it travels. Several third graders peer into the jar, trying to figure out what’s inside.

“Is that a lighter?” one kid asks. Nodding, I point out the other lighters. The other kids at the table start making their own observations, getting excited when they can identify different items.

When I ask the class where they think it’s from, most of the kids say that it’s from the beach. Some kids think that it came from specific beaches in San Diego, while others are stumped. For students who haven’t been to the beach before, it’s often less intuitive to figure out how the trash traveled to the ocean. Given that we live so close to the beach, you’d think that every kid I speak to has been before.

Unfortunately, for many of our students, the beach simply isn’t accessible; institutional barriers prevent a number of students from connecting with our neighboring coastline. Whether they go to the beach every day or they’ve never been, few students expect the real origin of the jar. When they find out, they’re somewhere between shocked and appalled. “It came from where?” they exclaim, grabbing at the jar for another look.

That’s when I know I really have their attention.

In my day job as an environmental educator, I visit schools to teach about pollution and how to prevent it. The jar in question contains a sample of marine debris, or trash found in the ocean, that was collected on Midway Atoll. More than that, all of the items in the sample were actually eaten by Laysan albatrosses, a species of seabird that lives on the atoll. It was generously donated to my workplace by the Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit working to protect the area’s history and biodiversity.

Midway Atoll is a small, remote island in the northwestern Hawaiian archipelago. While the island itself is small, it has an important role to play in keeping our oceans clean. It is home to one of the largest nesting colonies of the threatened Laysan albatross in the world. It’s also part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which at 582,578 square miles protects an area larger than all of America’s national parks combined! 

Few people realize that Midway is home to anything other than a World War II battle site. Even fewer people realize that its location makes it a hotspot for marine debris. Midway receives more than 50 metric tons of trash each year (a little more than the weight of an adult grey whale), pulled in by ocean currents from as far away as the mainland U.S. and Japan.

As part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Midway’s purpose is to protect threatened species like the Laysan albatross. Unfortunately, our plastic habit is making their protection a lot harder. The “poster children” for marine debris, albatrosses have been heavily impacted by ingesting plastic, but they’re one of many species affected by ocean trash.

Marine debris poses a variety of threats to wildlife by entangling animals, breaking into hard-to-clean microplastics, and smothering coral reefs. Midway’s place in the ocean makes it a hub for debris, which has already affected the huge albatross nesting colony and surrounding coral reefs. Organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) work to remove and properly dispose of the debris that washes up on Midway’s shores. Luckily for us, some of the debris that is cleaned up can be repurposed for education.

The marine debris jars have proven to be valuable tools when I visit schools. They get kids thinking about how our daily choices have long-term effects. Once you see debris that was collected thousands of miles away, something as simple as throwing away a plastic toothbrush is put into perspective.

In fact, one of the things that struck me about the samples was their normalcy. They were common household things; Boring, even. Yet these items had made a remarkable journey across the ocean to reach a tiny, remote island, to be collected by the same species that disposed of them, and then shipped thousands of miles back to reach us. Even after it’s thrown away, it’s as if our trash has an “afterlife” in the ocean– one that most people have never heard of.

The goal of my Advanced Inquiry Program independent study project was to tell the story of the trash. The basis of our “throwaway culture” is that plastic, like other single use items, is cheap and convenient. When it comes time to dispose of it, most of us will never see it again. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

My project was designed to show people what happens after we throw it away. The samples are incredibly powerful, and I wanted to give them the spotlight they deserve. I knew that I couldn’t physically share the debris jars with everyone, so I took a different approach: I photographed them. My project documented the Midway debris with high-quality photos that can be used for educational purposes.

After taking and editing the photos, I integrated them into an Esri StoryMap. The StoryMap allowed me to synthesize information on marine debris, its impacts on marine life, and interactive maps of Midway to give more context to the photos. The goal is to orient readers to how this debris made the journey, and why we should care. These samples won’t convince everyone to drop single use items– the issue is much more complex than that– but the more we’re confronted with the implications, the more we are motivated to start to change. 

The inspiration behind my project was my love for photography, coupled with my passion for science communication and education. I knew that my skills in design, photography, and other visual media could be put to use in conservation, and I wanted to explore how. Designing this Independent Study allowed me the flexibility to pursue a focused topic in greater detail. Seeing the finished product, an integration of skills I’ve built in the past 2 years in the AIP program (from literature reviews, to GIS mapping, to photography), makes me really proud.

This project allowed me to apply several of the Advanced Inquiry Program’s tenets along with one of my core values as an educator: make it meaningful and relevant to real-world issues. Hopefully, this resource can be used by educators to do just that. For others, I’m hoping the piece can start conversations about kicking our plastic habit.

Of course, my mind goes back to that third grade class that first experienced the debris jars. I know that this issue can be overwhelming for adults, much less for kids. Striking the balance between hopeful and realistic can be difficult. But seeing the curiosity in the students’ eyes, and their impressive knowledge of the issues facing our oceans, sets me at ease. I know that I’m helping educate the scientists and engineers of tomorrow, the ones who will solve this problem. They are the future, after all.