School of Environmental, Civil, Agricultural and Mechanical Engineering
College of Engineering
Updated Dec. 19, 2018: Jenna Jambeck’s work with colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Sea Education Association uncovered a startling statistic that was named the 2018 International Statistic of the Year by the Royal Statistical Society: 90.5 percent of plastic has never been recycled.
Prior to Jambeck’s research, it was unclear exactly how much plastic was ending up in landfills or, even more problematic, in oceans and gutters around the world. The new statistic gives a sense of scale to the problem of global plastic pollution. Jambeck’s previous work includes a 2015 study that was the first to estimate how much of the plastic waste produced on land made its way into the world’s waterways. Her follow-up two years later determined the amount of plastic produced worldwide since large-scale production of the synthetic materials began in the early 1950s.
Right before Jenna Jambeck was returning to school to get her doctorate in environmental engineering in 2000, racing captain and oceanographer Charles Moore showed the industrialized world that its obsession with plastic had a cost.
Moore’s articles on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch described a swath of free-floating marine debris, much of it plastic, that is now twice the size of Texas. The discovery was horrifying evidence of the consequences of man’s fascination with disposable, prepackaged goods. But perhaps more horrifying was that the microplastic-filled soup of trash wasn’t the only one; it was just the first to be discovered.
Jambeck was disgusted.
“I felt like we were doing something wrong on land if our trash is ending up in the ocean,” says Jambeck, now an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia. But a senior advisor at the time told her no one really cared that garbage was making its way from land into the world’s waterways. “Waste management in general, people haven’t really cared about that either.”
But to Jambeck, that was unacceptable.
After coming to Georgia, she and colleague Kyle Johnsen developed a free and easy-to-use app, Marine Debris Tracker, that gives ordinary people across the globe the power to record the location of debris they find on shores, on land and in the water. The information users submit helps determine some of the hot spots where trash is washing up on shore and gives the researchers an idea of the most common types of plastic and waste showing up as litter.
A year later after Apple gave the app a visibility boost in its 2014 Worldwide Developer Forum promo video, Jambeck was all over the news when Science published her study estimating that 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010. For the first time, there was a number—a conservative estimate, but an undeniable quantity—that showed exactly how ubiquitous plastic had become. A follow-up study in 2017 by Jambeck and some of the same colleagues from the previous study found that humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since mass production began in the ’50s. And the majority of it, 6.3 billion metric tons to be exact, ended up as waste.