UNCW’s Plastic Ocean Project: Reducing the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans
As Bonnie Monteleone was working on her master’s degree at UNC Wilmington, she took a trip to a remote beach in Hawaii. After 30 minutes of treacherously picking her way across rugged landscape, Monteleone arrived at her destination. Yet she wasn’t at Kamilo Beach to enjoy a perfect day. She was there to explore a beach blanketed in trash.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mark Steelman
While she recorded the scene on her phone, her colleague began to dig. After scraping straight down for 4 inches, they hadn’t seen any natural sand. Toothbrushes, bottle caps, bottles, fragments of plastic … the entire beach was covered in plastic trash that had floated in on a current.
“It was plastic sand. And this isn’t a developing country, this is Hawaii!” Monteleone says, sharing her shock. She knew immediately that her life had changed.
“I can’t defend my thesis, get my degree and move on,” she says of her feelings at the time. “I have to start a nonprofit and let people know what I’ve seen.”
When she arrived back in Wilmington, Monteleone started the Plastic Ocean Project, Inc. (POP) and began what she now considers her life mission: to educate the world about the harmful effect plastic has on the oceans. Since 2012 POP has continued to grow, but this year was a record year for the organization.
In August 2015 POP began its very first university chapter at UNCW. The group’s leader is Sam Athey, who was named the 2015 Person of the Year by Lumina News. By the end of the school year, they had won numerous awards for their work and made a sizable impact in the local community.
POP has a three-fold mission: education through research, outreach through art, and solutions through innovation. Monteleone, Athey and their entire hard-working UNCW team have found new and creative ways to protect our waters locally and globally.
In 2015 they applied to have an area 40 miles off of Cape Hatteras, along the continental slope, designated a Hope Spot.
Hope Spots are the project of marine biologist Sylvia Earle, who received her doctorate from Duke University and founded the Sylvia Earle Alliance to protect more of Earth’s oceans. Currently only 4 percent of oceans are protected while 12 percent of the planet’s land is protected. Through the Sylvia Earle Alliance and its Mission Blue initiative, Hope Spots are being formed to protect ocean areas around the world. While these areas do not receive any federal or formal protection, a Hope Spot designation is a first step in encouraging sustainable recreation, conservation of the area and awareness.
Inspired by Mission Blue, a documentary of Earle’s work, POP volunteers activated to get Cape Hatteras considered a Hope Spot. In the area they selected there is a huge population of Sargassum (a floating, brown algae) that makes it possible for abundant, diverse and unique wildlife to exist.
“This area that we want designated as a Hope Spot has the highest density and biodiversity of marine mammals on the entire East Coast and this is where a lot of our deep-diving whales are found,” Athey says. “This area is so vulnerable and no one knows about it, or they don’t understand how vulnerable it is.”
POP raised money, engaged in a detailed and active community campaign, shot film reels and submitted it all to Mission Blue. While they haven’t heard yet whether North Carolina will eventually be home to a Hope Spot, everyone feels incredibly optimistic. As of now, there are only two Hope Spots along the entire Eastern seaboard and none are in the waters around North Carolina.
“This is going to be a Hope Spot for the entire central East Coast,” Athey says.
POP loves working with the local community. POP has helped students at Lincoln Elementary start recycling programs, and volunteers have visited classrooms from kindergarten to high school with tailored lesson plans to educate students about the impact of trash on the ocean.
POP members aren’t afraid to do the dirty work, either. Students organize regular sweeps and cleanups of beaches all over the country. Whether they are home on break or here in Wilmington for school, members galvanize their local communities to pick up the trash. The chapter has adopted a stretch of Kure Beach and looks forward to cleaning more of the ocean, even if some of the trash remains miles beyond their reach.
The scientist in Monteleone is still at work, too, on some innovative technologies. Working with a company called PK Clean, she is researching a new scientific solution to the problem of plastic trash. POP now owns one of the nation’s few experimental reactors that convert plastic to oil. While the process is still under investigation, at UNCW they are testing the oil created for cleanliness and effectiveness.
“Is this going to be a greener product than the stuff we take out of the ground?” Monteleone asks. “We don’t want to create another environmental problem with a solution. But we could be getting rid of the [plastic in the ocean] problem by giving plastic a value. It will be less likely to end up in the ocean and trash if it means something.”
On the flip side, POP volunteers are using art to convey the impact of plastic in the ocean. On Earth Day, the POP UNCW chapter held a fundraising exhibition at the new Expo 216 building downtown.
Following in Monteleone’s footsteps, students created art using trash recovered from ocean cleanup work. Monteleone first applied her artistic skills to the issue by creating four giant canvases 20 feet wide that showed her interpretation of the four gyres in the ocean, and the trash now crowding them. The piece, “What Goes Around, Comes Around,” is a unique combination of art and science and has travelled more than 4,700 miles around the United States.
When the new downtown Wilmington gallery/museum Expo 216 developed its first exhibit, it was coincidence that gallery owner Linda Look chose Ocean Plastic as the theme for the year. But it was no coincidence that Monteleone and POP would play a part.
“Bonnie was an obvious choice,” Look says. “She is a scientist, researcher and artist. And once I met with her, she was so incredibly gracious.”
The night of the student art show at Expo 216, every single piece of student work sold, raising around $1,000 for POP’s mission. The chapter will continue to encourage students to create recycled art and sell the pieces on Etsy.
POP has made it possible for businesses to get behind their cause, too. They believe that one of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of plastics in our oceans is to reduce the use of single-serving straws in restaurants.
“When people talk about solutions, the best solution to the plastic pollution problem is just reducing plastic consumption,” Athey says. “Right now there is no efficient way to go out and clean up plastic trash in the ocean. A lot of it is accumulating in the center, which is pretty much impossible to remove.”
UNCW students developed a program called Ocean Friendly Establishments. While the program will grow and expand over the years, the main criteria for businesses to receive certification today is to not serve straws to guests unless requested.
“It is eye opening,” Athey says. “Through my research I really began to understand my impact on the ocean. It is insane how much damage a single straw or single disposable fork will have on the ocean that you cannot even think of. You just have no idea!”
POP volunteers work with businesses to educate employees about the danger of plastic straws. If requested, they lead workshops and seminars for companies and then, over the course of the certification period, they will spot check the businesses to ensure compliance.
So far, they have worked primarily with restaurants, but other businesses have committed to reducing their plastic use, too, and have been awarded certification.
“It is really impressive to see these businesses working so hard,” Athey says, “and understanding and acknowledging their impact on the ocean. They are working to reduce their plastic footprint. It’s not easy.”
POP doesn’t intend to slow down. On the horizon for next year are more student chapters across the country. Although Athey graduated UNCW this past spring, she will pursue her master’s and work for POP as their new director of chapters.
“When the forces of a community, a nonprofit, a student organization and a university combine, it’s a powerful thing,” Monteleone says. “That’s a wide net and we expect to see a big change in our community.”
It is clear that POP volunteers believe in the impact of their work and, by living near the beach, UNCW students and volunteers have a constant and visible reminder what is at stake.
“I would hate to see what happened in Hawaii happen to Wrightsville Beach,” Monteleone says. “The same thing will happen to all of our beaches if we don’t stop this.”
To learn more, visit the Plastic Ocean Project online at plasticoceanproject.org.
WANT TO HELP?
• Skip the straw
• Ask for reusable packaging (including cups and take out containers)
• Recycle at home
• Clean up after your visit to the beach
• Support Ocean Friendly Establishments
• Reduce your plastic usage (including children’s toys, grocery bags, juice boxes and water bottles)
• Get involved with POP, visit plasticoceanproject.org
These businesses have agreed to reduce their plastic footprint by not offering single-serving straws unless specifically requested by the customer.
Blockade Runner Beach Resort
Chop’s Deli (Wrightsville Ave)
Blue Surf Cafe
Nawab Fine Indian Cuisine
Oriental Medical Therapies
Outer Banks Brewing Station
Cape Fear Seafood Company
Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar
Mellow Mushroom (Oleander Drive)
Swansboro Food & Beverage Co.
SeaLevel City Gourmet