From source to sea: The university partnership fighting plastic pollution

SOURCE: Shutterstock
What is plastic pollution doing to the planet?

By Clara Chooi 

Read all stories

By now you would have read the screaming headlines: plastic pollution is destroying the planet.

The technology of developing plastic from fossil fuels is just over a century old but already much of the planet is swimming in the material.

Produced for human convenience, these materials are often used just once and are discarded too quickly and in quantities too large to be disposed off properly.

The facts tell the story: in 1950, a 2.5 billion global population produced 2.3 million tonnes of plastic. Fast-forward to 2015 and the production volume increases nearly 200 times to hit 448 million tonnes, serving a population just under thrice as large.

By 2050, production is expected to double.


The overuse and increased production of plastic are chief causes of the global plastic pollution problem. The world’s oceans have become one giant plastic dumpsite as a result, with over eight million tonnes entering global waters from coastal nations every year. 

“That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world,” the National Geographic says.

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – a floating island made entirely of plastic – has already grown to a size larger than all of France.

This is to the detriment of animal, as well as human, health. Many plastics contain additives to improve their durability and while great for human use, only means that once discarded, they will take much, much longer to break down in landfills.

According to estimates, some plastics could take as long as 400 years to decompose.

For this reason, environmentalists around the world have been waging a global war on plastics. Many nations have or are in the process of phasing out single-use plastics, creating new regulations and enforcement guidelines, and setting up recycling programmes to process discarded plastics.

On a global scale, a historic UN agreement to limit plastic pollution was signed by the vast majority of the world’s countries earlier this year, sans the US.

Corporations are also doing their part, some setting targets to reduce single-use plastic production, some phasing out its use entirely.

Taken collectively, these initiatives will certainly amount to something but the big question remains: is it too little too late?

Plastic pollution
Plastic pollution destroys marine life. Source: Shutterstock

The value of citizen science

To augment these efforts, a global partnership was formed last week among American multinational investment bank Morgan Stanley, the National Geographic Society and the University of Georgia College of Engineering.

Taking a scientific, educational and collaborative approach to tackling the global crisis, the trio are working together to scale and enhance efforts to prevent plastic pollution in coastlines and waterways by supporting the Marine Debris Tracker (Debris Tracker).

The Debris Tracker is an open-data citizen science mobile application through which individuals log plastic waste pollution. They also contribute to a growing suite of educational materials about the source of, and solutions to, plastic waste.

It is the only litter-tracking tool in the world that allows users to learn by exploring and contributing to an open-data platform with over two million items tracked to date. 

Through the app, the partnership hopes to improve understanding of the sources of plastic debris and pollution, generate scientific findings, inform solutions and inspire upstream design.


For Morgan Stanley, the initiative will help it advance its Plastic Waste Resolution, a companywide commitment to reduce and remove 50 million metric tonnes of plastic waste from entering rivers, oceans, landscapes and landfills by 2030.

Recognising that efforts to end the plastic pollution crisis require innovation, business model optimisation and financing, the firm announced the resolution last April and committed to partnering with diverse stakeholders, from research scientists to citizen scientists, to address the challenge.

“We firmly believe that citizen-science tools like the Debris Tracker are powerful examples of how spreading awareness can help lead to better data and wider public interest in an issue that is impacting communities around the world,” said Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer Audrey Choi in a media release.

“This partnership will equip educators, volunteers and everyday explorers alike with the tools they need to get more involved where they live and play, and take steps to help curb plastic pollution.” 

As an open-data app, the Debris Tracker serves a varied audience of educational, nonprofit and scientific organisations and citizen scientists. As the platform grows in audience and information, it becomes even more critical that it meets rigorous global scientific standards and improves in user experience.

Morgan Stanley says it will help support this growth, committing 10 years to its development.

For its part, the University of Georgia will seek to better understand and document how plastic waste travels from source to sea. The National Geographic Society will create a tool kit of educational resources to provide deeper understanding of the global plastic waste challenge and empower the next generation of scientists and explorers. 

“We’re grateful to be working with Morgan Stanley on this important global problem,” University of Georgia Professor Dr. Jenna Jambeck said.

“We’re confident this partnership will help to accelerate the Debris Tracker’s impact, expand our citizen science efforts, spread awareness about the issue and empower communities with data to help prevent plastic pollution.”