The growing amount of plastic debris in the world’s oceans and waterways has many scientists and anti pollution activists very concerned. The Great Pacific Garbage patch, a gyre in the Pacific Ocean that is capturing plastic debris and is growing in size has provided a rallying cry for activists that is gaining momentum. Drew Stephens, the founder of the GIS Institute, has long been involved in the application of GIS for conservation, and that work has led to his participation on the Think Beyond Plastic expedition in California that recently took place. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Stephens about the purpose and outcome of this trip as well as the benefits of applying more geospatial analysis to this problem.
V1: How long has the GIS Institute been in existence and what is its relationship to the Service at Sea initiative?
Stephens: The non-profit was founded ten years ago and Service at Sea was the first program that I created. The short version is that the scope of Service at Sea became too big too fast. I was creating a program that would require millions of dollars over a couple of years, and I realized that I didn’t have the capacity to generate that funding so early in my non-profit career. I think we backed off at the right time, and I’ve retooled since then.
The GIS Institute is the focus of the brand now, and we’re doing a number of different projects around oceans. The Service at Sea momentum cast me into a relationship with a group called SeaLife Conservation. They were picking trash out of the ocean, GPSing it, and writing attributes down on paper. I suggested they get that process detailed and automated into a GIS.
V1: The overall mission of the GIS Institute, as I understand it, is to bring GIS to people that want to make the world a better place.
Stephens: Yes, that’s accurate, and if we want to sharpen that a little, it’s getting GIS into the hands of conservation and advocacy groups to meet their mission. I’m starting to back off even on the use of the word conservation, there are power companies and oil companies, and just about every industry has companies that are trying to do something green. I tend to support people and organizations that don’t really have capacity for GIS, but are interested in doing good work with GIS.
Years ago, we aligned with the Society for Conservation GIS, and ESRI’s conservation program. I feel in a lot of ways that I’m using that as a base and expanding out into different kinds of people and organizations. For some organizations that I work with, I suggest that they apply for a grant to get software from the ESRI Conservation Program and that’s the last that I hear from them. Others ask me to help install software, choose equipment and do some GIS training.
In the case of SeaLife Conservation, the Service at Sea tie was so strong that I ended up designing processes and mobile mapping tools with them. We were able to automate that whole debris data collection process. We’re now picking up about 120 different types of debris from the water, and collecting data in about seven different categories – categories being foam, plastic, metal, wood, food wrappers, etc. We have a pick list in ArcPad to automate the classification of every new point of data collection.
If you’re entering this data from notes (manuall) into Excel, over time you see things like a cigarette butt spelled in 15 different ways. The ESRI tools, have allowed us to consistently map this information with four years of data for Monterrey Bay.
V1: What is the mission of SeaLife Conservation?
Stephens: Their summer is spent on a 65’ research sailboat working for the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. They take kids and families on a daily cruise called Science Under Sail. They do a plankton tow, and they catch drift kelp and pick through it to find the creatures living in the kelp. People can see it, smell it, and look at it under a microscope. While they’re doing this, they may see a potato chip wrapper floating in the water. They’ll turn the boat around, literally doing a man overboard drill and retrieve that debris and take a GPS point.
I was out with them three years ago, and I experienced that the program firsthand. I was impressed that they were so committed. The next spring I was walking down the street with crew members in Oakland, CA - you can’t even have a conversation with them because they keep ducking out and picking up trash in the curb to keep it from going down the storm sewer and into the water.
Hanging out with them convinced me of the sincerity of their mission. Here’s a group of individuals who are very committed to informing communities of the problem of plastics in the sea. They’re very selective of what they purchase, they’re very strong advocates for plastic bans and polystyrene bans in their community. Now they have data that shows why.
I’ve spent a couple years nursing them along and I think they’re about to get a big contract because there’s so much interest in plastic pollution. It looks like they’ll have the opportunity to take the boat out to the Pacific Gyre to do some scientific surveys.
V1: You’ve just returned form a tour on the same boat, right?
Stephens: Yes, we just did a tour called the Think Beyond Plastic Cruise that was sponsored by Sea Studios. They are a film company that has done work for National Geographic, with a film called Strange Days on Planet Earth that has Ed Norton as the narrator and host. They had enough money in their foundation to hire SeaLife Conservation to do the educational cruise.
We left Santa Cruz on November 2nd, and made several stops down the coast. We met with communities, and worked with the various harbor keepers and local chapters of SurfRider Foundation. Everywhere we went, we’d take anti-pollution advocates and nonprofit officers out on the water with us, and work them through the Science Under Sail activities. We’d show them what we do, and in the evenings there would be a larger community event with a panel of local experts, citizens, and our experts to talk about the issues. We’d talk about conservation issues all the way down to consumer choices and how to enter dialogue with restaurants that are still serving food in polystyrene takeout containers.
The single-use plastics are ending up in the water, and any plastic in the water, regardless of its shape or size looks like some living creature, which means it gets eaten by some other living creature. It only takes one or two birds eating styrofoam coffee cups in front of you to realize that this is not good.
V1: What was your role on the cruise?
Stephens: Well, the focus was primarily on helping people understand just how much plastic is entering our oceans. Sea Studios funded SeaLife Conservation to do the advocacy work, and I got invited along to be the GIS interface and to be the analyst. My title on the ship was technology officer. Every now and then we’d run into a patch of plastic, and my role was to make sure the GPS was on, the debris data was recorded, and later I would analyze and map the event.
The GIS science behind the advocacy is where I come in. We have taken this data, and put it into a geodatabase to look for patterns. What are the percentages of polystyrene, Frito Lay chip wrappers, and other materials?
Chip wrappers were the number one debris type that we found in the Port of Los Angeles. When we got to Long Beach, we met with Charles Moore, who is credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage patch. He described the booms that the county has set up at different river-mouths. We went to look at them, and the booms are working, because they’re all full of Styrofoam, though chip bags and candy wrappers get filled with water and tumble under the booms.
It was interesting to see the different garbage patterns. In San Francisco Bay last spring, we were seeing candy wrappers and chip bags in some estuaries, and in others we saw syringes and other nasty things. When you go up stream you see the origin of the debris related to the different neighborhoods where it comes from (ie residential areas with schools, vs industrial districts).
To me as a geographer and advocate, I want to keep this material out of water so that it doesn’t go out into the gyres. People mention the wildland and urban interface when talking about wildfires. I see our harbors, rivers and storm-drains as the human/gyre interface, so I’m focused on where we can witness, clean up, map, and talk about plastics entering the ocean. That’s in the harbors and near-shore areas, and that’s where my work is ending up. How do we change people’s behaviors so there is less debris entering the water system? The first step is to make peole more aware of the problem.
We’re quite convinced that most of the debris isn’t intentional litter. People are putting garbage in cans without lids, and when the wind blows it all flies out and ends in a storm drain.
V1: Was the intent with the voyage to promote mapping?
Stephens: Not officially, but I was always promoting the use of GIS and mapping. We were off Santa Cruz Island one day, which is a national marine sanctuary, and we started running into a bunch of candy wrappers. We started picking up debris, and an hour and half later we had 83 points of data and we had to move on. That night we had a meeting in Santa Barbara with the local SurfRider Foundation chapter and other citizens, and I was able to get the data on the map with some basic analysis and percentage breakdowns. Frito Lay bags again seemed to be in abundance with the highest percentage. If it’s not Styrofoam, it’s a chips bag.
Sea Studios Foundation hardly knew I was there, but the map became the primary backdrop in our presentations. Our program director would use the map to illustrate what’s happening in our oceans right now as we speak, and the map was an important part of that advocacy.
V1: Did you do much analysis on the boat?
Stephens: Life on the boat with the equipment that we had and the time that we had meant it wasn’t easy to get into deep analysis. The four years of Monterrey Bay data will serve us to publish some findings. The voyage for me was about advocating plastics and the use of geotechnology. There were a lot of people that came on the boat that hadn’t seen a field-quality GPS and had never thought about collecting attributes with location information.
At the end of the day I’d always do a quick summary of the kinds and quantity of the debris that we found. We’d talk about how it got there and where it came from. GIS is such a great tool to have people understand quantity and distribution of a problem like marine pollution.
V1: The “think beyond” part of the plastic voyage, was it to look at some of the societal causes?Stephens: My colleagues on the trip are all about changing behavior. We were thinking along the lines of “what can we use besides that plastic bag?” Everyone that came to the meetings received a reusable plastic bag. We’re encouraging people to pay more attention to their own waste stream and the simple choices that we can make about that waste stream.
The captain did a 30 day experiment with his wife and child, saving every piece of plastic that came into their lives. He talked about that experience throughout the trip, about how surpized he was with the growing number of garbage bags at home with plastic in them, and the bags themselves are plastic. On the boat we rinsed out our garbage and recycling bins, we didn’t use liners. It’s a simple concept, and difficult to execute, but we did our best to keep plastic products off the boat.
When you see people choosing to live without so much single use plastic in their lives, it becomes a credible image of how you can become aware of those waste streams. The “Think Beyond Plastics” theme raises awareness to think what we were doing before plastics became such a part of our daily lives. How can we reduce or flatten plastic consumption?
V1: In coastal areas there’s a greater connection, but I wonder if a large part of the problem is that people inland don’t make the connection between their consumption and what gets in the ocean.
Stephens: It’s definitely something that I’ve heard people say, but this plastics problem is occurring in our inland waters as well - worldwide. The ocean is downstream from everything and plastic pollution is flowing all the way to the ocean. The problem is not just a coastal problem. We see the effects of plastic debris in all waterways. People living near a water body are seeing plastics.
If you go down any stream in any part of the world, weather it’s a small stream in North Carolina, or The Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park, you’ll see trees and shrubs with plastic wrapped around them. It’s the unmistakable mark of humanity.
V1: How much has our plastic use grown?
Stephens: Charles Moore is the director of a program called Algalita. He’s credited with discovering the Pacific Gyre. He puts it well when he says that we’re now in the Age of Plastic and it snuck up on us. Nobody made any conscious decision, the use just grew over time. Most of us involved with plastic pollution are concerned about plastic that was created to last a long time, but that only gets used for a few minutes.
The weight of a plastic bag is why people love them. You can ship tons of them much cheaper than paper bags, and they are easier to store. Those cashiers that say, “plastic okay?” as a store policy are the ones that we are working change. The movement to use reusable bags is growing, and I look forward to the day they ask, “where’s your bag?”
I intend to get active in my community of Asheville, North Carolina, and I think there’s momentum for a bag ban here. I wonder if those that are against banning single use plastics have the resources to fight this across the entire country. They do show up now at small community gatherings and city council meetings or write threatening e-mails with lawyers.
The City of Monterrey was able to pull together a defensible statement about the use of plastics and polystyrene and the ban passed.
V1: Now that you’ve returned from the trip, what are some of your takeaways?
Stephens: My biggest takeaway, the one that surprises and heartens me the most, is the appreciation for the number of people who contacted me to share how my trip has inspired them. There are everyday people I know, and some that just heard about this trip, that write to tell me how they are sharing this story with their children, and even cooler, teachers taking this story to their students as an adventurous way to teach science and sustainability.
I just got off the phone with David Robinson the director of SeaLife Conservation. They manage the 65-foot research sailboat, the SRV Derek M. Baylis, that I was on for three weeks. The boat was built to do advocacy, research and education around marine issues.
We talked about what went right, what we can get better at, and how to improve the advocacy effort. We’re almost at the point with our data collection and mapping model that I can show someone how to do it, without me on-site. I’ve been the technical resource for them, and as you know it can be hard to get people to take on GIS without an internal champion or resource.
We’re going to finish making this model and to create a downloadable template for anyone that wants to do “scientific grade” debris mapping. I talked to Jack Dangermond and others at ESRI about hosting a repository for people doing beach or harbor cleanups to catalog their data on a map, and they’re interested in doing that.
My idea is to get the professional-grade data model in place and then create a community-grade citizen science tool to allow people to use affordable equipment and still report data to a central location in a consistent format. The third level would be to create an iPhone trash application to create awareness and still report to a central database.
If we begin mapping these near-shore human/gyre interfaces, and if we begin pooling global data on where people are collecting debris, we will begin to see what kind of debris exist in different places. We can then feed that data into a model that visualizes debris entering the water and then going into the gyres. We have access to a network of electronic drifters, to know where currents are over time, and these accurate current measurements will really help in a global model to understand what’s in the gyre.
The Pacific Gyre has gotten major attention this summer, but there are five major gyres in the world -- two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, and an Indian Ocean gyre. The other four have reports of plastic in them as well. We really can’t map the plastics in the gyre’s because the pieces are too small to show up in satellite images. As GIS practitioners, we’re used to acquiring an image and building a GIS based on what we see. In the ocean we have an incredibly large area and no quick easy way to create a baseline of information.
Surveying the gyre and modeling what’s in the gyre are the big unknowns and I really hope to stay close enough to this topic to get some significant work done over the next few years.
There’s a professor at Appalachian State University named Mike Mayfield that I studied under. He’s suggesting using population density and finding consumer purchasing habits and correlating those two where we can begin to model what people are throwing away in different places. Vancouver may be different from Seattle, may be different from San Francisco, may be different from Los Angeles, and all the way to San Diego and beyond. And globally there are different legal and environmental laws in different nations that need to be modeled to see how these contribute to the amount of debris that end up in the oceans. Funding this research, and building these models is my hope for what’s next.