Plastic Pollution Crowds Out Life, Says Engineer Who Traces Ocean Trash To Its Source The engineer views a landfill as a living ecosystem, and the plastic that clogs it as a serious threat that crowds out life and never goes away. Can we eliminate the waste before it smothers us?
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We're Drowning In Plastic Trash. Jenna Jambeck Wants To Save Us

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We're Drowning In Plastic Trash. Jenna Jambeck Wants To Save Us

We're Drowning In Plastic Trash. Jenna Jambeck Wants To Save Us

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Plastic is both a wonder of modern technology and also one of the major environmental problems of our time. Plastic garbage is turning up everywhere. There are these massive floating garbage patches in the oceans. There are tiny pieces of plastic that end up in the food chain, including in our food. NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story of a woman who's telling the world how much plastic waste is out there and where it's coming from.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: I met Jenna Jambeck at her office at the University of Georgia for an interview. I was not expecting homework.

JENNA JAMBECK: So we were going to do for the next 24 hours is to record everything that you touch that is plastic.

JOYCE: I'm touching something right now.

JAMBECK: So let's write it down.

JOYCE: My microphone holder - it's plastic.

JAMBECK: Yup. And your - this...

JOYCE: You mean the tape recorder?

JAMBECK: Yeah, the tape recorder.

JOYCE: A plastic ID card; the zipper on my bag.

JAMBECK: All right. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and that was maybe three minutes.

JOYCE: This is going to be a long day (laughter).

JAMBECK: Probably.

JOYCE: Jenna Jambeck started her career as an environmental engineer specializing in waste management. She's a connoisseur of garbage dumps. She's taken me to one of her favorites near Athens, a couple of hours' drive from Atlanta.

We're sitting here at a dump, and I'm looking over...

JAMBECK: Landfill.

JOYCE: Excuse me - at the landfill.

Jambeck grew up in rural Minnesota. There was no garbage collection. She had to borrow a truck to take her family's trash to a dump every week.

JAMBECK: I was always pretty fascinated by going there and just seeing what I would see.

JOYCE: And that fascination with the stuff people throw away grew into a profession.

JAMBECK: I fell in love with studying waste.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR RUMBLING)

JOYCE: So there's no getting out of the fact that I'm going to have to climb up onto this landfill. Jambeck's going to show me what plastic does in the landfill, or rather, what it doesn't do.

JAMBECK: Such a beautiful day out here.

JOYCE: Yeah, you could say so. The sun's shining. The vultures are flying overhead.

JAMBECK: It's gorgeous. All right. I want to go further.

JOYCE: OK.

She's wisely chosen to wear green rubber boots.

I'm just going to step where you step.

JAMBECK: (Laughter).

JOYCE: What I see is a mound of dirt and muck about 50 feet high at the top, covering several acres. Trucks are dumping their loads. Miscellaneous bits of trash poke up out of the ground.

JAMBECK: I see, like, a living, breathing thing. This whole system is actually an ecosystem.

JOYCE: Microbes break down the organic garbage. Metal corrodes and dissolves. Most everything returns to the earth, except...

JAMBECK: Plastic would be the thing that doesn't break down.

JOYCE: The intruder.

JAMBECK: Yeah.

JOYCE: The stuff that's sitting out here is all plastic.

JAMBECK: Yeah.

JOYCE: Container of toothpaste. That looks like the top of a...

JAMBECK: Detergent bottle.

JOYCE: PVC pipe, that looks like. Most plastic will break down into smaller pieces, eventually, but no one knows how long those pieces linger in the environment. And a lot of it ends up in the ocean. It collects in giant floating patches. People want to clean it up, and Jambeck says, sure, but wait a minute; let's find out where it's coming from.

JAMBECK: We sort of backed up and said, well, how much do we think is actually going in? And what we can do is to keep the waste out of the ocean in the first place.

JOYCE: No one really knew how much plastic was washing into oceans or just where it was coming from, but in a seminal paper published three years ago in the journal Science, Jambeck figured it out. It made a big splash. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee invited her to testify and to tell them just how bad the problem was.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Dr. Jambeck, you're next.

JAMBECK: Thank you, Chairman Sullivan, ranking member Whitehouse...

JOYCE: It was Jambeck's first appearance in Congress, but she came with hard information no one else had, and it was pretty shocking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMBECK: We estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the oceans in 2010. This is equal to a volume of five...

JOYCE: She held up a bag full of plastic trash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMBECK: ...Grocery-size bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.

JOYCE: That's right - five bags for every foot of coastline in the world. Jambeck says half of that waste comes from China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, countries with growing consumer economies but little waste management. Most of what shows up on beaches and in the ocean is single-use plastic - grocery bags, bottles and caps, straws, utensils, packaging, mostly manufactured in the West. By Jambeck's calculations, in 2025, 10 times as much plastic could be going into the oceans.

JAMBECK: It seems to be that that's going to be our footprint in this time period. Is that really the story we want to tell future generations?

JOYCE: Jambeck is trying to change that story. She's been appointed by the U.S. State Department to be sort of a plastic ambassador who advises foreign governments on how to manage their plastic waste. She advises the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group working to stem plastic waste. She says putting actual numbers on how much plastic waste there is has made a difference.

JAMBECK: Now around the world, people are reacting to that and trying to figure out what to do to have a positive impact.

JOYCE: Like looking for plastic substitutes for utensils or packaging and getting people to pay more attention to what they use and throw away and what they can recycle - and getting plastic out of landfills like this one. Jambeck met the man who would become her husband on top of a landfill. They were both doing research, digging into the very bottom of a landfill to see how things decompose. They pulled up an immaculate piece of lunchmeat.

JAMBECK: It was a piece of bologna.

JOYCE: How do you know it was bologna?

JAMBECK: 'Cause it looked exactly like a piece of bologna from a package.

JOYCE: It was a bonding moment.

JAMBECK: We laughed at the bologna (laughter).

JOYCE: It's a hot afternoon, and the aroma is rising - volatile fatty acids, Jambeck explains. But then a truck arrives with a fresh load for a waiting bulldozer and compactor.

JAMBECK: So they're going to dump, and then the bulldozer is going to come and move it. And then the compactor gets his turn to drive over it.

JOYCE: OK. I don't need to wait to see all that.

JAMBECK: (Laughter) Oh, you just broke my heart.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Oh, wait a minute. My plastic count for 24 hours - I touched 52 items - credit card, restaurant menu, soap dispenser, my glasses, a ketchup container, an elevator button, a hotel chair, my computer, light switches, television remote, sandwich wrapper...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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