NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


1 Comment

A Summer like NOAAther: A NOAA Intern’s Experience

Man standing in front of wave fountain. Image: NOAA.

Danny Hoffman, constituent and legislative affairs intern, standing in front of the wave pool at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. The pool, Coastline, is the work of artist Jim Sanborn and represents the Atlantic coastline. A NOAA monitoring station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts transfers instantaneous wave heights via modem to Silver Spring and then transferred to the wave pool. Image credit: NOAA.

By Danny Hoffman, Office of Response and Restoration intern

When I told my friends and family that I would be interning at NOAA this summer, the first reply I often got was “NOAA? Aren’t they the ones that do the weather report?”

I have to profess that as a government and history double major, my knowledge of NOAA did not extend much beyond that before starting my internship. When asked what I would be doing, I mostly rattled off phrases from the internship description posted, not knowing many more specifics.

However, after a very rewarding 10 weeks as a constituent and legislative affairs intern at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, not only do I know much more about NOAA than I could have previously imagined, I have also gained valuable experience working in a government agency.

As my time at NOAA ends, I’ll share some of my experiences, as well as my impressions of interning with the federal government.

What does Response and Restoration mean?

First, “Response and Restoration” is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than physically clean up oil and chemical spills, one of the office’s roles is to provide scientific support to the Federal On-Scene Coordinators during spills. The Emergency Response Division does this by calculating the trajectory of spilled materials in bodies of water and providing information on weather and resources at risk for the affected areas, among other support.

The Assessment and Restoration Division assesses damages to natural resources in the aftermath of a spill, and finally, the Marine Debris Division helps to monitor and cleanup the thousands of tons of marine debris in our waterways and oceans. Even after 10 weeks, I am still learning new aspects of this office every day.

Learning to Love Science

As someone coming from a social science academic background with limited scientific expertise, I initially felt intimidated interning for a government agency principally focused on science.

On top of that, this was my first internship. However, those worries were largely laid to rest on the first day, when to my surprise, rather than finding scientists in lab coats huddling around beakers—as I like to imagine my friends majoring in science do all day—I instead found an office with resource coordinators, communication specialists, NOAA commissioned officers, and scientists, none of whom were in lab coats.

Some of the things I learned my first day here were:

I quickly had to adapt to navigating the jungle of acronyms. Thankfully, I finally found an acronym that spoke to my feelings of sinking in the sea of letters and abbreviations: SOS. Which, incidentally, stands for both Science of Oil Spills, a class that helps train and educate spill responders, and Science on a Sphere, a room-sized globe that allows the over 400 data sets to be projected onto it.

Behind the Scenes

While providing scientific expertise during spills is one of the main missions of this office, their work extends far beyond that. During my internship, I worked under policy analyst Robin Garcia. She is responsible for communications between the office and Congress. This ranges from organizing tours of spill restoration sites in congressional districts, to requests for technical information about the office’s work to Congress. Though this job may be more behind-the-scenes, it provides vital support for the office’s mission.

 More than Just Brewing Coffee

When picturing an intern, you may think of someone delegated to the mailroom, licking envelopes and refilling the water cooler.

I actually did help refill the water cooler, but only because of my cubicle’s close location to it. Otherwise, I did little grunt work. When I wasn’t out attending Capitol Hill briefings, or outreach events, my main duties included tracking key legislation that would affect the office’s mission, and creating a tracker for the Strategic Plan that will continue be used through 2021.

My activities were varied; I attended an outreach event at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, helped review a training manual on environmental compliance, and went to a briefing on the Hill, all within the first week!

From white papers to windows

I was also fully integrated into the office, from sitting and participating in conference calls with the outreach team, to interviewing NOAA scientists in Hawaii. That interview was for one of my main projects this summer, researching and writing a white paper reviewing the office’s outreach efforts on oil-by-rail spills.

As someone used to writing historical and political science research papers, one of my biggest challenges was adapting to the more technical and explanatory, or scientific, writing style of a governmental white paper.

Also, while this may seem strange to some, getting my own cubicle proved more exciting than I was expecting. As part of that, I also learned to deal with a struggle affecting thousands of government employees: not having a view of a window by their cubicle (though thankfully I was no more than a five-second walk away from one).

Man sitting at desk in front of computer screen. Image: NOAA.

Intern Danny Hoffman sitting at his desk in his windowless cubicle. Image credit: NOAA.

Some other highlights of time include attending Capitol Hill Oceans Week, the nation’s premier ocean conference where I attended panels and met with leading ocean science and policy experts, and a communications training day, which included workshops on how to constructively talk to reporters during interviews, public speaking tips, and not one, but two mock interviews.

A true dive into the world of policy

As I leave NOAA to enter my senior year at the University of Maryland, I am thankful for the sweeping introduction this internship has given me to the world of policy, and for all of my NOAA coworkers who supported me during my internship.

From preparing white papers to speaking daily with leading professionals who make policy, much of what I have learned and experienced simply could not have been taught in a lecture hall.

I am excited for a possible future career with the federal government, and encourage anyone with an interest in policy, marine science, or public relations to apply for an internship with the Office of Response and Restoration in the future!

 

Danny Hoffman is a rising senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently double majoring in Government and History, with a minor in Spanish. Outside of interning for NOAA, Danny enjoys traveling (though not on Metro), reading about U.S. History, and playing his viola.


Leave a comment

Staff Participate in NOAA Science Camp in Seattle

Girl in classroom pouring liquid into fish tank. Image credit: NOAA.

A camper pours a bit of sesame oil into a fish tank to simulate a marine oil spill. NOAA Science Camp participants learned the basics of how spilled oil behaves, effects the environment, and how we forecast where it might go. Image credit: NOAA

The U.S. Coast Guard announces a ship collision in Puget Sound off Shilshole Bay. What happens now?

Trying to answer that question started the journey of participants in this year’s NOAA Science Camp. Washington Sea Grant organizes the popular camp and each year participants discover how NOAA oceanographers, biologists, chemists, physical scientists and others from the Office of Response and Restoration respond to hazardous spills.

More than 90 campers participated in 10 two-hour sessions during the two weeks of science camp, held July 10-21 at NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle. Guided by staff from both the Emergency Response Division and the Assessment and Restoration Division campers explored answering the five questions our response staff ask during spill incidents:

  • Where will the oil go?
  • How will it behave in, on the water, and on different types of shorelines?
  • What biological and human resources may be at risk during a spill?
  • How might the oil adversely affect these resources?
  • What can be done to help?

Camp participants learned what scientific data is gathered to answer those questions. They also were introduced to response tools like our GNOME modeling software, and Environmental Sensitivity Index maps.

Our staff also helped campers learn about pollutants from cars, homes, agriculture, and other types of land uses and the effects on the Puget Sound.

In other lessons, campers simulated the flow of water and pollutants in the environment, using tabletop watershed models and building groundwater models. They then brainstormed methods to clean up, contain, and prevent watershed pollution.

In another session, campers rolled up their sleeves, donned lab googles and gloves and become aquatic toxicologists for a day, testing samples for toxic chemicals and water quality parameters and learned how to interpret their data.

Later in the week, campers had to solve a science mystery. They visited several NOAA offices to gather more information about various aspect of the scenario and then applied what they learned to test their hypotheses.

Campers presented their findings and conclusions on the last day of camp each week and were evaluated by a scientist representative from each office.

Staff science camp instructors included Marla Steinhoff, Mark Dix, Dalina Thrift-Viveros, Dylan Righi, Chris Barker, Matthew Bissell, Gary Shigenaka, Nicolle Rutherford, Amy MacFadyen, and Rebecca Hoff.

Marla Steinhoff and Amy MacFadyen contributed to this article.


Leave a comment

NOAA Open House 2017

Aerial ob buildings along lake shore.

NOAA’s Western Regional Center is in Seattle on Lake Washington, adjacent to Seattle’s Warren G. Magnuson Park. Image credit: NOAA

Explore your world and learn more about how NOAA works to understand and predict changes in Earth’s environment to help protect people and property and to conserve and manage coastal and marine resources. Join us at the Western Regional Center in Seattle, Washington for a series of free activities, including engaging science presentations and panels, interactive exhibits and tours. This event is perfect for the whole family.  (Adults – please remember to bring our photo IDs to gain access to the campus).

NOAA Open House is a FREE event, open to the public, with no reservations required.

Date: Friday, June 9, 2017

Time: 12 pm – 6:30 pm

Location: NOAA Western Regional Center
7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115

You will have the opportunity to learn more about a variety of NOAA programs, including the National Weather ServicePacific Marine Environmental LaboratoryNOAA Fisheries ServiceNational Ocean ServiceNOAA Corps, and more!

Tours:

Tours will be filled on a first come, first serve basis. Check back soon for tour times. Sign-ups will be available at the registration table. Guided tours include:

WEATHER – Take a tour of NOAA’s National Weather Service Seattle office forecast center and learn how meteorologists work 24/7 to forecast the Seattle area weather from the waters of Puget Sound to the Cascade Mountains and everything in between. Tour is 30 minutes in length.

OCEAN ENGINEERING – Step into NOAA’s engineering workspace where engineers are hard at work building and testing new technology to collect data from our oceans.  See the evolution of tsunami sensing moorings and new innovative technologies used to study the ocean. Tour is 30 minutes in length.

DIVING – Take a tour of NOAA’s Diving Center and take a (simulated) dive into the 30 foot deep training tower and hyperbaric recompression chamber. Get hands out experience with SCUBA diving equipment and learn how NOAA divers conduct research underwater. Tour is 45 minutes in length.

MARINE MAMMALS – This tour includes rare access to the NOAA marine mammal research bone collection that includes orca skulls and a narwhal tusk! Tour is 30 minutes in length.

SUSTAINABLE FISHERIES – Take a tour of NOAA Fisheries Net Loft where you will see how NOAA manages fisheries that produce sustainable seafood. Tour is 30 minutes in length.

Please visit the Facebook event invitation for more information.

Questions? Contact the NOAA Open House coordinators


Leave a comment

Now Open: The Annual NOAA Marine Debris Program Art Contest!

Grab your crayons! It’s that time again!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Get your art supplies ready, because this year’s NOAA Marine Debris Program Art Contest is now officially open!

Students grades K-8 can submit artwork through November 30th that answers the questions:

  • How does marine debris impact the oceans and Great Lakes?
  • What are you doing to help prevent marine debris?

Winning entries will be featured in our 2018 Marine Debris Calendar. Be creative and help raise awareness about marine debris! For a complete list of contest rules, visit our website and download the student entry form and art contest flyer.

Ready… set… draw!

Art contest flyer. This year’s NOAA Marine Debris Program Annual Art Contest runs from October 17th through November 30th. Check out our website for more information!

View original post


Leave a comment

Washington Sea Grant Launches New Program to Prevent Small Oil Spills that Add Up

This is a guest post by Lauren Drakopulos of Washington Sea Grant.

Marina in Seattle with small boats.

Small recreational and commercial vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in waters around Washington’s Puget Sound over the last 10 years. (NOAA)

To paraphrase an old saying, “There’s no use crying over spilled oil.” But many people in Washington worry a lot about oil pollution in Puget Sound and other coastal waters around the state.

What many don’t realize is that the biggest source of oil spills to date in Puget Sound isn’t tankers and freighters but small recreational and commercial vessels. Small oil spills from these types of vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in local waters over the last 10 years.

How do these small oil spills happen? A common cause is when oil, along with water, builds up in the bottommost compartment of a boat, known as the bilge, which has a pump to keep rain and seawater from building up. Oil from broken oil lines in the engine area or spilled fuel on deck can get washed down into the bilge and then pumped into surrounding waters.

Taking Charge of Discharges

Aaron Barnett holds a bilge sock next to stacks of them.

Washington Sea Grant’s Aaron Barnett preparing to distribute small oil spill kits in 2015. (MaryAnn Wagner/Washington Sea Grant)

In the future, however, Washington boaters increasingly will have access to a simple remedy known as the Small Oil Spills Prevention Kit, which consists of a small absorbent pillow, or “bilge sock,” that is placed alongside bilge pumps to prevent oily discharges from entering the water. Washington boaters will be seeing and using a lot more of the kits.

The Clean Marina Program, a partnership of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Northwest Marine Trade Association, and Washington Sea Grant, has worked for 20 years to minimize small vessel spills. But the summer of 2016 marks a change: for the first time the campaigners are targeting private boaters rather than marina managers.

Washington Sea Grant, the Washington Department of Ecology, and Washington’s District 13 Coast Guard Auxiliary have launched the Small Spills Prevention Program to provide boaters with the knowledge and tools they need to stop oil pollution at the source. Last year, in a trial run, Washington Sea Grant Boating Program Specialist Aaron Barnett succeeded in distributing 1,000 oil spill prevention kits.

This year that labor is bearing fruit: according to Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough, more and more boaters are requesting kits after seeing their friends and other boaters use them. As Barnett explains, the success of the program depends on first, getting the kits out to boaters, and second, word of mouth—with boaters educating each other about oil spills.

Pollution Prevention, Pollution Management

Boaters understand the importance of keeping their waterways clean. As frequent users, they serve as the first line of defense against pollution. “Boaters want to do the right thing,” says Brough, “and these [kits] make it easier.” He recently handed out spill prevention kits at a local marina on National Marina Day. “It’s like handing out candy on Halloween. Anyone with a bilge and inboard engine will take one.”

Brough also got a chance to see the kits in action. “At the marina office, one boater was getting a bilge sock to replace his old one from some extras I had given the yacht club a few months earlier,” he recounts. “The guy had gotten a crack in the lubrication oil line during a trip on the Sound. The broken line dumped a significant amount of oil into the bilge. The bilge sock he was using caught all of the oil, and none went overboard.”

Small spills can be expensive for boaters to clean up, and often cost is the first question boaters ask. In Washington the kits are funded through state oil taxes and made available to boaters at no cost, as part of the Small Spills Prevention Program. This summer, Washington Sea Grant hopes to hand out another 1,000 kits to boaters.

Lauren Drakopulos.Lauren Drakopulos is a Science Communications Fellow with Washington Sea Grant and is pursuing her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Washington. Lauren has worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and her current research looks at community engagement in fisheries science. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach, and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit www.wsg.washington.edu for more information or join the conversation with @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of NOAA or the U.S. federal government.


Leave a comment

In Florida, Rallying Citizen Scientists to Place an Ocean-Sized Problem Under the Microscope

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Young woman filling a one liter bottle with water along a marshy beach.

Florida Sea Grant has been teaching volunteers how to sample and examine Florida’s coastal waters for microplastics and educating the public on reducing their contribution to microplastic pollution. (Credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

Have you ever looked under a microscope at what’s in a sample of ocean water? What do you think you would find?

These days, chances are you would spot tiny bits of plastic known as microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters long (about the size of a sesame seed).

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project is giving people the opportunity to glimpse into Florida’s waters and see a microscopic world of plastic pollution up close. This project integrates citizen science—when volunteers contribute to scientific research—with education about microplastics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Maia McGuire of Florida Sea Grant. She’s leading the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, which is funded by a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, of which the Marine Debris Program is a part, has a long history of collaborating with Sea Grant programs across the nation on a range of issues, including marine debris.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has funded more than a dozen marine debris removal and prevention projects involving Sea Grant, and has participated in other collaborations with regional Sea Grant offices on planning, outreach, education, and training efforts. Many of these efforts, including the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, center on preventing marine debris by increasing people’s awareness of what contributes to this problem.

Combining Science with Action

Blue and white plastic fibers viewed under a microscope.

Volunteers record an average of eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, with seven of those eight identified as plastic fibers (viewed here under a microscope). (Credit: Maia McGuire, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

This latest effort, the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, involves building a network of volunteers and training them to collect one liter water samples from around coastal Florida, to examine those samples under the microscope, and then to assess and record how many and what kinds of microplastics they find.

“Everything is microscopic-sized,” explains McGuire. “We’re educating people about sources of these plastics. A lot of it is single-use plastic items, like bags, coffee cups, and drinking straws. But we’re finding a large number are fibers, which come from laundering synthetic clothes or from ropes and tarps.”

Volunteers (and everyone else McGuire’s team talks to) also choose from a list of eight actions to reduce their contribution to plastic pollution and make pledges that range from saying no to plastic drinking straws to bringing washable to-go containers to restaurants for leftovers. For those who opt-in, the project coordinators follow up every three months to find out which actions the pledgers have actually taken.

“It’s been encouraging,” McGuire says, “because with the pledge and follow up, what we’ve found is that they pledge to take 3.5 actions on average and actually take 3.5 actions when you follow up.”

She adds a caveat, “It’s all self-reported, so take that for what it’s worth. But people are coming up to me and saying, ‘I checked my face scrub and it had those microbeads.’ It’s definitely resonating with people.”

Microplastics Under the Microscope

The project has trained 16 regional coordinators, who are based all around coastal Florida. They in turn train the volunteer citizen scientists, who, as of June 1, 2016, have collected 459 water samples from 185 different locations, such as boat ramps, private docks, and county parks along the coast.

“Some folks are going out monthly to the same spot to sample,” McGuire says, “some are going out to one place once, and others are going out occasionally.”

After volunteers collect their one liter sample of water, they bring it into the nearest partner facility with filtration equipment, which are often offices or university laboratories close to the beach. In each lab, volunteers then filter the water sample, using a vacuum filter pump, through a funnel lined with filter paper. “The filter paper has grid lines printed on it so you’re not double counting or missing any pieces,” McGuire adds.

Once the entire sample has been filtered, volunteers place the filter paper with the sample’s contents into a petri dish under a microscope at 40 times magnification. “Because we’re collecting one liter water samples, everything we’re getting is teeny-tiny,” McGuire says. “Nothing really is visible with the naked eye.”

Letting the filter paper dry often makes identifying microplastics easier because microscopic plastic fibers spring up when dry. And they are finding a lot of plastic fibers. On average, volunteers record eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, and of those, seven are fibers. They are discovering at least one piece of plastic in nearly all of the water samples.

“If they have questions about if something is plastic, we have a sewing needle they heat in a flame,” McGuire says, “and put it under the microscope next to the fiber, and if it’s plastic, it changes shape in response to the heat.”

Next, volunteers record their data, categorizing everything into four different types of plastic: plastic wrap and bags, fibers, beads, or fragments. They use online forms to send in their data and log their volunteer information. McGuire is the recipient of all that data, which she sorts and then uploads to an online map, where anyone can view the project’s progress.

A Learning Process

Tiny white and purple beads piled next to a dime.

These purple and white microbeads are what microplastics extracted from facial scrub looks like next to a dime. Microbeads are being phased out of personal care products thanks to federal law. (Credit: Dave Graff)

“When I first wrote the grant proposal—a year and a half ago or more—I was expecting to find a lot more of the microbeads, because we were starting to hear more in the news about toothpaste and facial scrubs and the quantity of microbeads,” McGuire relates. “It was a little surprising at first to find so many [plastic] fibers. We have some sites near effluent outfalls from water treatment plants.”

However, McGuire points out that what they’re finding is comparable to what other researchers are turning up in the ocean and Great Lakes, except for one important point. Many of those researchers take water samples using nets with a 0.3 millimeter mesh size. By filtering through paper rather than a net, McGuire’s volunteers are able to detect much smaller microplastics, like the fibers, which otherwise would pass through a net.

“I think one big take-home message is there’s still so much we don’t know,” McGuire says. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge or research about what the impacts [of microplastics] actually are. We need a lot more research on this topic.”

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your contribution to plastic pollution, take the pledge with the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, and dive into the research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, which are exploring:


1 Comment

Innovative Solutions to Tackling Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Washed Ashore founder Angela Haseltine Pozzi with a giant marlin statue made of marine debris.

Washed Ashore Executive Director Angela Haseltine Pozzi leads a lesson on how marine debris can be used as a powerful art medium to engage students on the topic while at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Behind her is one of her organization’s marine life sculptures crafted entirely from trash retrieved from the ocean and coasts. (NOAA)

You don’t have to get too fancy in order to help keep plastic and other marine debris out of the ocean. Solutions can be pretty simple: Reducing your use of single-use, “disposable” plastic items; picking up a plastic wrapper littered on the sidewalk; participating in a beach cleanup. (Stay tuned: we’ll get deeper into ways you can help later this week.)

Sometimes, however, the particulars of this problem can be more complex. Sometimes just getting people’s attention and encouraging them to take those simple actions require more creative approaches. We’ve rounded up a few projects that have our attention, projects which are aimed at making a dent in the many problems associated with ocean plastics.

Know of another notable ocean plastics project? Let us know in the comments or on social media using #OceanPlastics.

Turning what’s Washed Ashore into powerful pieces of art

A large, bright orange fish sculpture made from ocean trash, mostly plastic.

Washed Ashore rallies volunteers to clean beaches, using the collected debris to create larger-than-life sculptures of the marine life affected by ocean trash. Here, Henry the Fish stands outside Washed Ashore’s gallery in Bandon, Oregon. (NOAA)

Walking southern Oregon’s otherwise beautiful beaches, artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi began despairing how much plastic pollution seemed to appear on its shores. Inspired to turn that pollution into something more positive, she rallied volunteers to clean the beaches and turn the trash into sculptures of the marine life affected by plastic pollution. That’s how Washed Ashore was born. In addition to creating these larger-than-life recycled sculptures, Washed Ashore’s latest project, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, incorporates theater, movement, and creative writing into a curriculum for teaching students about marine debris.

From a sleek marlin to an inquisitive puffin, Washed Ashore’s mostly plastic, often massive sculptures serve as dramatic backdrops—and powerful ocean ambassadors—for these educational programs in zoos, aquariums, and museums around the country. According to Washed Ashore, since its inception in 2010, the program has processed 38,000 pounds of marine debris, turning it into more than 60 sculptures.

Transforming lost fishing nets into energy

Man using a forklift to place old fishing nets in a collection dumpster.

Since begun in 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has removed and diverted 3 million pounds of fishing gear from the ocean. (Credit: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation)

The Fishing for Energy partnership helps fishermen properly dispose of old and abandoned fishing nets and other gear—much of it plastic—at no cost to the fishermen. In addition to donating their own worn-out nets, some fishermen also directly retrieve lost fishing gear out of the ocean. After being collected and sorted, any metal parts are recycled, and everything else is converted into electricity, with roughly one ton of old nets producing enough electricity to power a house for 25 days.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation works with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta, and Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. to carry out this partnership, which has expanded to include funding other projects that seek to prevent or remove lost fishing gear in U.S. coastal waters.  Since it started in 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has removed and kept 3 million pounds of fishing gear out of the ocean.

Rethinking “disposable” plastic at dinner time

Left: Salad in a to-go container with plastic fork and dressing cup. Right: Salad in a ceramic bowl with metal fork and dressing cup.

The Clean Water Fund’s ReThink Disposable campaign works with San Francisco Bay-area food businesses and institutional food services to help them find more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic food and beverage packaging. (Credit: Clean Water Fund)

Plastic straws, cups, plates, bags, forks, and spoons turn up among the most frequently found items at beach cleanups year after year. Eating with these so-called “disposable” plastics creates huge amounts of waste, and the Clean Water Fund, with the support of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is working to stem this flow of food-related plastics coming from restaurants in California’s San Francisco Bay region.

Through their ReThink Disposable campaign, Clean Water Fund is collaborating with local food businesses and institutional food services by auditing their waste and helping to find more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic food and beverage packaging. They’re also working with the businesses to communicate to the public the benefits of cutting down on this type of waste and how it impacts the environment.

One of them, El Metate Restaurant, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant, swapped plastic cutlery and salsa cups, previously provided to both dine-in and take-out customers, for reusable metal cutlery and ceramic salsa bowls. After implementing these changes, not only did El Metate manage to keep 493,711 disposable food ware items out of the landfill (and coastal waters) each year, but the changes improved the dining experience, increased dine-in customers, and is saving nearly $9,000 a year.

Diving deep into the belly of a whale to see impacts to wildlife

A circle of students and teachers with trash in the middle and the inflatable whale in the back of the gymnasium.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington MarineQuest’s Traveling Through Trash program takes students inside the belly of a 58-foot-long inflatable whale, Watson, to teach about the impacts of ocean trash on marine life. (Credit: University of North Carolina Wilmington)

Few things can communicate the scale of plastic’s impacts on wildlife like walking inside a life-sized inflatable whale and “dissecting” its organs to uncover the marine debris it’s swallowed. That’s exactly what middle and elementary school kids in rural North and South Carolina have the opportunity to do through the University of North Carolina Wilmington MarineQuest’s Traveling Through Trash program, which received funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

People have found plastic bags, rope, juice packs, broken CD cases, and much more inside dead whales. Watson, the 58-foot-long inflatable right whale, offers students the chance to experience this reality close up and learn how they can take responsibility for keeping trash, no matter where it comes from, far away from the ocean and marine life. During the 2015-2016 school year, Watson the Whale traveled more than 8,000 miles and taught more than 9,500 students about how trash affects migrating marine species.