Student-Led Symposium Spotlights Global Impacts of Ocean Plastics

April 5, 2016

Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084,

By Nathan Miller, MEM ‘17
Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – While many Nicholas School Students spent last Friday hosting and fielding questions from prospective students during Admitted Students Visitation Weekend, others opted to talk trash.

Ocean trash, that is.

The student-run Ocean Policy Working Group (OPWG) hosted its first symposium dedicated to the seemingly immeasurable abundance of garbage plaguing coastlines and high seas around the world. 

The event, “Talking Trash: Confronting the Challenges of Marine Debris,” sought to bring attention to what OPWG sees as one of the largest issues facing both environmental protection and human health. Eighty students and faculty members registered for the symposium, held in Love Auditorium. In addition to presentations and panel discussion, the event featured ample time for one-on-one networking.

“I think it’s safe to assume that most people attending today have some degree of awareness regarding the scale of garbage in the ocean,” said Justin Pearce, a Masters of Environmental Management (MEM) student and one of the symposium organizers, “but we wanted to take this opportunity to underscore the diverse approaches scientists are taking to better understand both the consequences of marine debris as well as the causalities that permitted the scenario we see today.”

Pearce, along with Brianna Elliott, Ashley Gordon, Nick Alcaraz, Emily Hall, and Caitlin Starks, all MEMs studying coastal management at the Nicholas School, spent months coordinating the event. Their line-up of guest speakers – representing organizations such as The Ocean Conservancy, EPA, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, and Duke’s own Marine Lab – reflected their mission to showcase the state of scientific research on ocean trash.

In her presentation, Jenna Jambeck, a professor at the University of Georgia whose recent findings estimate that up to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year, discussed how systemic problems such as fast-paced lifestyles, dependency on disposable one- time use consumer products, and poor waste management infrastructures in developing parts of the world permit so much garbage to aggregate.  She also highlighted the countries whose mismanaged wastes are most likely to find their way into the ocean. China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka comprised the top five.

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NSOE alum Nicholas Mallos, a presenter at the symposium.


MEM alumnus Nicholas Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas initiative at The Ocean Conservancy, reiterated how much trash the world’s oceans and beaches contain as he discussed the Annual Coastal Cleanup, a one-day event every year where half a million people from all over the globe volunteer to clean up their local shorelines.

“Last year, volunteers removed 16 million pounds of trash from 13,000 miles of coast,” Mallos said.  “Of the items removed and catalogued, the most common ones we collected were disposable, single use plastics; cigarette butts; plastic bottles; food wrappers; plastic grocery bags and so on.” 

Mallos also offered anecdotal evidence of waste accumulation in areas where infrastructure is inadequate.

“On one small beach strip just a few miles from the heart of Lima, Peru, one team removed thousands of pounds worth of trash from the sands,” he said. “After the clean-up, one of the volunteers who lives in the area informed us that the garbage on that beach will return to pre-cleanup levels within three weeks.  This isn’t just an issue of aesthetics either.  Coastal communities rely on their shores for tourism as well as a steady source of protein via the fish caught just off the coast; so the economic, not to mention the sanitary implications, are quite tangible.”

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NSOE faculty member Dan Rittschof, a presenter at the symposium.


Dan Rittschof, Lee Hill Snowdon Professor of Ecology, Marine Science and Conservation at the Duke Marine Lab, delivered a presentation about the physiological effects of plastics on marine organisms before concluding his remarks with the famous “plastics” quote from The Graduate.

Speakers Lisa Rider, assistant director of waste management in Onslow County, N.C.; Margaret Murphy, EPA AAAS Fellow ; Carlie Herring of the NOAA Marine Debris Program; and Marcus Eriksen, director of research for 5 Gyres, all commented on the challenges of implementing meaningful policies to mitigate the discharge of plastics into the ocean.

Murphy spoke with particular passion on the role of industry during the process of policy development. She said that the clout of business can determine whether or not legislators will pass laws that limit the distribution of plastics in consumer goods.

“I think a remarkable example occurred last year when Congress overwhelmingly decided to ban the use of microbeads is consumer products,” Murphy said.  “Cosmetic and oral hygiene companies, which have incorporated these miniature plastic beads into their products for years, had no objections to a ban on microbeads because they stated that they could easily continue to manufacture their products in a manner that wouldn’t compromise their profit margins.  As a result, the ban passed with ease.  Had these industries objected to this legislation, ratifying a microbead ban would have been much more difficult.”