Science & Technology Society & Culture

UGA engineers are tackling single-use plastics

Jenna Jambeck is internationally recognized for her work to reduce plastic waste, and her research has spurred governments, industry and nonprofit organizations to protect ocean wildlife and ecosystem health by reducing plastic waste generation and expanding waste management infrastructure.

A member of the University of Georgia faculty since 2009, Jambeck conducts research and teaches environmental engineering with a focus on solid waste management and marine debris. As associate director of UGA’s New Materials Institute and director of the Center for Circular Materials Management, Jambeck is shifting the paradigm of waste management to proactive materials management. This means thinking about how to create less waste and managing materials before any “waste” is produced.

She led a landmark study, published in Science in 2015, that estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the world’s ocean every year. A follow-up study published two years later revealed 90.5 percent of plastic has never been recycled. Prior to Jambeck’s research, it was unclear how much plastic was ending up in landfills or, even more problematic, in gutters and the ocean around the world.

Along with fellow College of Engineering faculty member Kyle Johnsen, she is co-creator of the Marine Debris Tracker mobile app, now powered by Morgan Stanley. The open-data citizen-science tool allows users to track plastic and other pollution using their smartphones. To date, Debris Tracker users have logged more than 2 million items around the world. The data gathered by the app helps scientists to create a more comprehensive picture of marine debris and plastic pollution, while informing and empowering community decision-making.

Jambeck conducts public environmental diplomacy for the U.S. State Department’s International Informational Speakers Program, which has sent her to 14 countries around the world to discuss and collaborate on addressing plastic pollution, including Philippines, Indonesia, South Africa, Japan, China, India and South Korea. She has testified twice on this issue before the U.S. Congress.

Watch the video above to learn more about Jambeck’s research and what must be done to reduce the burden of plastic pollution throughout the world.