Dr. Jenna Jambeck Wants People to Get in Touch With Their Trash

As World Oceans Day approaches, a leading environmental engineer talks about recycling plastic, corporate responsibility and where she sees glimmers of clean-up hope.
Aug 9, 2019 9:40 AM ET
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When she’s not teaching at the University of Georgia or speaking at conferences and symposia around the world, Dr. Jenna Jambeck is likely to be found wearing green rubber boots and black gloves while digging through some trash. She might be at a landfill near Athens, Georgia, on a beach near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, or along the banks of the Ganges in India. Understanding where trash comes from, how it gets managed, where it ends up after it’s collected and — most crucially — how it ends up en route to sea, is the focus of Jambeck’s celebrated 20-year career as an environmental engineer and National Geographic Fellow.

In 2014, a landmark study she published — Plastic Waste Inputs from Land to Oceans — became an eye-opener for the global community of concerned leaders and environmentalists. For the first time, data about waste on land was connected with population density and economic status, and it could be used to estimate how much plastic was entering our waterways and ending up in oceans. By looking at population size and the quality of waste management systems, Jambeck was able to determine where the greatest amounts of trash are entering the oceans.

In addition to identifying the sources of ocean-bound plastic, Jambeck also measured the amount plastic trash entering our waters every year: eight million metric tons. “That’s challenging to visualize,” says the professor, “but if you think about it, it's equal to about a dump truck of plastic going into the ocean every minute.” Sadly, that number is on the rise, and is expected to be substantially higher by 2025.

Now, Jambeck is on a mission to examine the critical contributions of women in waste management and recycling. Last month, she journeyed with HP and Thread International to Haiti to study a community and its recycling center that turns ocean-bound plastics into ink cartridges for consumer printers. Next, she went to Bangladesh with National Geographic Society as part of the Sea to Source Expedition. In between her 14-hour flights and up-river treks, we were able to ask Jambeck a few questions just ahead of World Oceans Day.

Why should people be thinking about rivers on World Oceans Day?

Rivers are the conduits to our ocean. They connect our land activities to the ocean through their flow of water that can bring nutrients, pollutants, including waste and plastic from inland to the ocean. While I visited the ocean as a child and fell in love with it, I grew up on the banks of a river in Minnesota that leads to the St. Croix, the Mississippi, and eventually the ocean. I know that river like the back of my hand from rafting and floating down it so many times in my life. While not everyone sees the ocean, many of us are connected to rivers and so understanding their contributions and connection to our ocean is important.

Can you explain the difference between ocean plastic and ocean-bound plastic?

Ocean-bound plastic is plastic that is mismanaged on land that can easily make its way into the ocean. It's either blown or washed into a very close water way or directly into the ocean. Ocean plastic is plastic that is found already in the ocean. Once plastic ends up in the ocean, it's actually really hard to get back out. And it fragments into smaller pieces. Capturing before it gets to the ocean is much more effective, efficient and economical.

Make your voice heard by contacting companies through social media about their packaging. What do you find good or bad about what they do?

— Dr. Jenna Jambeck

In April, HP announced it has upcycled 25 million ocean bound plastic bottles into HP ink cartridges, preventing this material from entering the ocean. In general, what role do corporations play in helping to solve our waste crisis?

Working in the waste world, we just have to deal with whatever gets sent our way, but corporations can rethink how their products are made, and make sure they are recyclable. But even before that, can products be delivered without packaging at all? The best thing environmentally is no waste. But if it is going to be created, make it something valuable that can be efficiently and economically recycled.

How can consumers make their choices known?

First of all, you can vote with your dollars. Preference for products packaged in something that has value and can be recycled easily is a good way to start. Make your voice heard by contacting companies through social media about their packaging — what do you find good or bad about what they do?

One personal example is a product I buy for my cat by mail-order. I could either choose a paperboard box or a plastic sleeve for packaging. While the paperboard box was a bit more costly, I chose that option since I know I can recycle it.

What should governments be doing to help move us towards systematic change? Is there a way that smaller states, cities and communities make a difference?

Governments can create comprehensive solid waste management regulations and plans. They can also make policies encourage recycling and decrease leakage of waste, these could include deposit-return schemes and in certain cases, bans of problematic items. Resources are critical to developing waste management systems in countries where they are lacking, both towards infrastructure and capacity building.

Can you give us an example of things you’ve seen that have given you hope recently?

I get inspired when I travel around the world and see people beginning to care about waste management and keeping plastic, especially, out of our environment. I feel hopeful after I see people realize they can make a change in their community and demand things be different. I would say that major changes have taken place in Indonesia recently with action plans and extensive cleanup. I am also get hope from the NGOs we are working with on the ground in Vietnam to recognize and raise the profile of the independent waste collectors in Ho Chi Minh City. And now, I am absolutely inspired by the resilience I have gotten to know from working with the women in the front lines of recycling and waste management in Haiti, providing collected PET bottles to the recycling center that is a hub for millions of bottles that need collection in Haiti.

DISCOVER: Learn about HP's commitment to sustainability in the 2018 Sustainability Impact Report

You have recently begun a new Women in Recycling research project (which is supported by HP) that specifically looks at the work of women in recycling ocean-bound plastics. Why are you interested in this particular angle?

This new collaboration to study women working on the front lines of managing waste is not just important to me personally, but really a critical component to addressing ocean plastic. Women are marginalized all over the world and the waste sector is no different, but they are often the experts on the ground, organizers, and food product purchasers with little power. I hope this research highlights the important role they play and the capacity for change and positive impact that they bring to the table.

How will you be spending World Oceans Day, June 8th, this year?

I will be in India co-leading the National Geographic Sea to Source Expedition, their largest female-led expedition ever. We are going from the Bay of Bengal all the way to the Himalayas. We will be near the iconic and holy city of Varanasi, reported to be one of the oldest living cities in the world on the banks of the Ganges River, a river that eventually reaches the ocean (and where we started our expedition). We’ll be sampling the river water, sediment, and air, the land that is the source of plastic entering our waterways, and meeting with stakeholders and the communities to engage them in discussions on what they think needs to be done in their particular situation.

The plastic pollution problem can seem so overwhelming. Beyond switching to reusable water bottles and paper straws, what can the average person to do help?

First of all, I would love for people to get in touch with the waste they generate. I've also developed a Marine Debris Tracker and an app for people to report when they find plastic litter and debris. If you really want to dive into this, do your own waste audit. Or even better, count everything in 24 hours that you touch that is plastic. Then think about what you really need and don’t need. It will be different for everyone. 

Thanks to our engineering, we have made it so easy to get rid of, recycle and dispose of waste that people barely have to think about it … it just goes away. But if you could be more thoughtful about what you purchase and the waste it generates, we might ask questions about why a product is packaged the way it is. If you can’t recycle something, why not? Is there a way to meet your needs, without producing more waste, especially through packaging? And if this is difficult, why is it so hard? Who can you talk to about making it easier? Your municipality? Corporations? Influencing others and making your voice heard is exactly how this collective action can have impact.

Learn about HP's commitment to sustainability in the 2018 Sustainability Impact Report.

Read how HP is turning Haiti’s mountains of plastic garbage into high-tech printer gear.