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Set Sail For Science: Plastics


By Heidi Hill

March 16, 2023



Dear Readers,


If you have read about our journey, you may remember that my husband, our young son, and I have been “on the road”—on our sailboat on the ocean “road”—for about three months now.


As we’ve traveled from our US home of San Francisco, California, to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, we have been citizen scientists, collecting information for nonprofit organizations to help them grow their data set and knowledge.


This leg of our journey we have focused on ocean plastics monitoring.





Part 1: The Plastics Problem

Plastic pollution of the world’s oceans is one of the biggest environmental issues of our time. It impacts nearly seven hundred marine species. You can also bet that a piece of plastic found in the ocean has also traveled in one of our rivers. The effects of water-based plastic pollution are now in our drinking water and our food.


Gathering Data to Improve Action

Despite the depth of the plastic problem, there is very little data on the types, quantities, and journeys of the plastic debris that litters our global waterways. That’s why, as citizen scientists, my family and I are partnering with The Ocean Cleanup organization and tracking and categorizing the plastics that cross our path in the Pacific Ocean. We record our findings via the organization’s app. This helps The Ocean Cleanup’s Research Team map how plastic floats along rivers and other smaller bodies of water and how it then accumulates in oceans, so they can optimize their global cleanup strategy.


The Most Common Plastic Items We’ve Found

  • Bottles

  • Bottle caps

  • Bags

  • Straws

Does that list match up with what you would have expected? Do you think we’ll find other categories of plastics as we continue our voyage?


Most of these are found entwined with kelp and seaweed, and we can only imagine how other pieces of plastic litter are mingling with, and harming, other sea life.





Part 2: Calling More Citizen Scientists! Help Us Make a Change

Kids! Parents, teachers, and librarians! Everyone and anyone can be a citizen scientist. The data you capture—that we all, together, record and share—can help professional scientists, advocates, and local and world leaders to act in smart, effective, successful ways.


Not everyone lives near an ocean, but most of us live near some form of moving water—a river, stream, or creek. Those waterways play a central role in the disbursement of plastic pollution. So, all of us have the opportunity to observe, record, and report on plastic pollution in whatever water is near us. And then all of us will be doing something to solve this problem.

Learn more at The Ocean Cleanup and how to get involved!


Remember: Earth Day is right around the corner (April 22), so now is the perfect time to start planning a citizens science project related to plastics pollution in water. Or jump right in and get going—every day is a good day to help our planet.



Bonus Learning Opportunities

Parents, teachers, and librarians, there are lots of learning opportunities around plastics pollution.


Citizen science is only one of the many ways for kids to get involved and learn how to be better stewards of our earth. Here are more ways to Gain Knowledge, Take Action, and Get Inspired!


Gain Knowledge

Working together, define biodegradability and discuss how long different items take to break down into tinier and tinier pieces and eventually disappear or be reabsorbed into the ecosystem. For example:

  • Plastic bottle (450 years to break down)

  • Plastic bag (500 years to break down)

  • Plastic diaper (550 years to break down)

  • Banana skin (6 months to break down)

  • Paper milk carton (6 years to break down)

  • Aluminum can (20–100 years to break down)


Other items, and their biodegradability rates, are listed in book Our World Out of Balance, pages 60–61.


Take Action

When you throw plastic away, it may end up in our water. So, what could you do instead, to prolong the plastic’s useful life?


We can recycle. Recycling is definitely much better than just throwing something in the garbage. But recycling requires a lot of energy and other resources to do right—and the items may still end up in the landfill.


And we can upcycle! Reusing an item in a new way can be called upcycling. Upcycling allows you to give an item new life before the “last resort” of recycling. When you upcycle, you transform an item you used to use into a new, usually even better, higher-quality item you will also use.


Simple: Birdfeeder

Items Needed

  • Soda bottle (empty, cleaned) with screw-on cap

  • Scissors

  • Wooden spoons

  • Birdseed

  • Wild a model of this robot, reusing “trash” you have at home or in the classroom. Science Buddies has great

  1. Cut an even number of holes in a soda bottle. Two or four holes is a good number. Cut them in pairs: one across the bottle from the other and slightly up from it.

  2. Slide the handle of a wooden spoon through each pair. These will serve to plug the holes and act as rests for munching birds!

  3. Fill the bottle with seed.

  4. Screw on the cap and tie wire around the bottle’s neck or attach a wire loop in another way and hang your new, upcycled, feeder from your favorite tree.


A Little More Complicated: Pen and Pencil Case

Items Needed

  • 2 plastic bottles of about the same size and shape (empty, cleaned)

  • Scissors

  • Zipper (big enough to fit around one bottle)

  • Hot glue gun

Instructions

  1. Cut the top off both bottles. If you’re going to store taller pens and pencils in this case, cut higher, leaving more of the bottom. Recycle the tops.

  2. Glue the zipper inside the top edge of the bottom of one of the bottles.

Placement tips: Align the zipper so its teeth run at least 1/8 of an inch above the bottle edge. Face the zipper pull out.

  1. Unzip the zipper.

  2. Glue the other side of the zipper inside the second bottle in the same way you did the first one.

  3. Fill your new case with your favorite writing and art supplies!


Complicated: Upcycled Plastic-Eating Robot

Imagine

  • How could a robot reduce, or “eat,” plastic waste in water?

  • What would that robot look like?

  • How it would it work?

Sketch your vision of a plastic-eating robot. Can you imagine making it out of upcycled parts?


Make

Build a model of this robot, reusing “trash” you have at home or in the classroom. Science Buddies has great instructions to build a robot out of plastic bottles, toilet paper tubes, and other common materials.


Research and Get Inspired!

Learn about others who are making a difference in cleaning up plastic.


Boyan Slat is a great example of such an environmental hero. When he was just sixteen years old, he started studying technology solutions to the plastics problem. Now, still younger than thirty, Slat is the founder and chief executive officer of The Ocean Cleanup. One person can make a big difference—and one idea can change the world for the better.


What’s an idea you have?










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