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Decreasing Marine Debris: From Coastal Communities to National Efforts

By: Amanda Dwyer,
Knauss Fellow,
Marine Debris Specialist,
NOAA Marine Debris Program


One of the Knauss Fellowship’s most exciting opportunities is to explore areas of marine science that are outside your academic field of expertise. I am now expanding my marine knowledge beyond my dissertation from Northeastern University, which focused on coral recovery from bleaching, to focus on marine debris issues. With my placement at the NOAA Marine Debris Program, I am working to support NOAA’s National Ocean Service (NOS) Zero Waste Initiative to promote zero waste efforts in the organization’s daily operations and events. 

Zero waste demonstrates a commitment towards attainable goals for reducing and minimizing waste at NOS. This may not mean completely eliminating all waste but rather taking our best attempts at diverting waste from landfills. While zero waste can cover a variety of topics, this initiative began with a focus on decreasing solid waste across NOS offices. My placement office, the Marine Debris Program, was tasked to spearhead this initiative because mismanaged waste often ends up as marine debris. This fellowship not only allows me to learn how the NOAA Marine Debris Program addresses marine debris nationally but also allows me to assist with continued waste reduction efforts in NOS offices and events.


The position piqued my interest from my past extracurricular activities. During my graduate school studies on coral bleaching, I also worked with local students, through The Beach Sisters, to educate their coastal community about the role they can play in preventing marine debris. From this experience, I learned that an important way to ensure individuals are decreasing production of marine debris is to stop reliance on single-use items that are disposed of frequently. These preventable items include disposable cups, plates, silverware, toothbrushes, straws, plastic or glass bottles and containers, and food wrappers and containers.


An area that fascinated me in graduate school is how the United States federal government takes into consideration all of the various work being done at local or regional levels when creating overarching approaches to protect our marine environments. This is especially the case with so many complex issues, with different variables from location to location. Since beginning my fellowship, I’ve learned that though the Marine Debris Program is a non-regulatory part of NOAA, they tackle regional debris issues through their 10 regional coordinators located throughout the United States. These coordinators work with local partners to address needs at the regional and local levels, including through the creation of regional and state marine debris action plans. Regional coordinators bring knowledge and share regional priorities with the entire team to ensure national strategies consider various regional priorities. The Marine Debris Program also supports numerous projects focused on the prevention, removal and research of marine debris, with staff dedicated to marine debris science, international affairs and communications. 


My role in the Zero Waste Initiative for NOS offices is to help ensure that the actions developed within this initiative continue to make progress and reduce the agency’s marine debris impact. I help oversee the NOS Zero Waste Action Plan that includes three overarching goals with 18 specific actions to be approached throughout my fellowship year. These actions include improving recycling guidelines posted around the office to reduce the number of items being put in recycling bins that don’t belong there, creating a document and engaging with staff on how to properly dispose of items no longer needed in the office and developing a list of zero waste tips for offices to discuss during meetings. I will also have the opportunity to brief NOS leadership on the progress of this initiative during my fellowship.


In order to find new ways to address components of this Zero Waste Initiative, I had the opportunity to reach out and learn from other offices within NOAA, as well as research relevant groups who work in solid waste management organizations. During my first month, I began working with Montgomery County’s recycling program to learn about resources available for businesses to improve waste management practices, in order to assist the NOS offices in Silver Spring, Maryland. Before social distancing guidelines took effect, I attended a fun zero waste themed event at the National Academies of Science with my office, which featured a waste management themed escape room. The momentum gathered around zero waste initiatives across the country is very exciting and I am thankful for the opportunity to have a direct impact on NOAA’s role.


Reducing waste in offices has its challenges, especially when the majority of staff are carrying out their offices’ missions from their homes. However, there are a few benefits and silver linings that make me optimistic for a zero waste future. During this telework period, I have been able to delve into the data and research that will help NOS be better prepared to reduce waste when staff return to their offices. Additionally, we are still able to share the progress of this initiative with NOS employees, which has been highlighted in a variety of communication materials. 


In April, the Acting Assistant Administrator for Ocean Services and Coastal Zone Management, Nicole R. LeBeouf, recognized the one-year anniversary of the NOS Zero Waste Initiative in her weekly message by sharing the results of our waste assessment and key takeaways to apply in the office, as well as at home. This encouraged employees to think about which items are most commonly found in their home waste stream and what actions they could take to decrease them. This included the suggestion to spend time at home doing your own waste assessment,  determining what items you are disposing of most frequently, and then brainstorming ideas for how to reduce them from your waste stream. Some common solutions include switching to bar soap, buying items in bulk or, when ordering take out, say you don’t need disposable utensils and use your own silverware instead.


During this time, the best actions that one can take can be as simple as being cognizant of the waste created at home and brainstorming ideas for the future. Considering zero waste approaches, even while at home, can help progress towards protecting our oceans from marine debris. I hope you may be able to take these thoughts into consideration in your own home!

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