Interview with a “Trash-Man”

One meter by one meter surface sample at Kamilo Point on the Big Island, Hawaii. More than 84,000 pieces of micro-plastic were counted. (Photo credit: Nick Mallos via GreenSportsBlog)

Plastic polluting the oceans of the world is something we don’t like to report on, but do anyway, since it’s such a widespread and high-impact issue. Below, Lew Blaustein of GreenSportsBlog interviews the Ocean Conservancy’s Director of Trash-free Seas, Nick Mallos. The Ocean Conservancy works toward science-based efforts to protect the ocean and its wildlife, as well as human communities that rely on healthy marine ecosystems.

GreenSportsBlog: Director of Trash Free Seas. That is one cool job title. How did you get to the Ocean Conservancy and the “Trash Man” moniker?

Nick Mallos: I’ve been working on trash in the ocean for the better part of a decade, with the last six years at Ocean Conservancy so “Trash Man” seems to fit perfectly. Before that, while at Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA), where I earned a BS in Biology and Marine Science, I spent a semester in the Caribbean to study lemon sharks. While on the Island of South Caicos, I saw that massive amounts of trash and plastics were washing ashore on its north side. This got me interested in marine debris and what was needed to do to remove it.

Later, in 2007-2008, I was a teaching assistant in marine science on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, right around the time when a significant number of people started to be aware of the Pacific Gyre [a massive “garbage patch” in the Northern Pacific Ocean]. The one issue that resonated with students of all ages, all backgrounds, was that trash shouldn’t be in the ocean. Plastic ocean waste is, sadly, a powerful tool to get diverse audiences to care about an environmental issue.

GSB: Sad but true…

NM: Oh “sad” is just part of it. “Tragic” is an even better word. While I was doing my Masters at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, I traveled to the Midway Atoll in the Pacific to see the effect of plastics up close, on the pacific sea turtle, Laysan albatross, and Hawaiian monk seal.

GSB: I bet those effects are not good…

NM: You would cash that bet. The plastics come from just about everywhere in the Pacific…Southeast Asia, China, Korea, even Russia. The albatross eat the plastics mistaking them for fish eggs and then those plastics are fed to their chicks, which cannot regurgitate the material. Almost all of the juveniles on Midway Atoll have plastics in their stomachs.

GSB: So working with the Ocean Conservancy, which, I imagine, helps to lessen the amount of plastics in chicks’ stomachs, sounds like a natural for you.

NM: No doubt about it. I have a great team of 5 working with me. Our longest-standing project is the International Coastal Cleanup, which goes back 31 years. It’s a global volunteer effort, with 150 countries participating. Since its inception, volunteers around the world have removed 220 million pounds of trash from waterways, beaches and the ocean.

GSB: Holy Cow! How many volunteers do you have?

NM: We have about 500,000 in a typical year; 2015 was anything but typical as we had 800,000 volunteers! We’ll find out on International Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday, September 17 whether we can beat that number.

GSB: This must be a Herculean organizational effort.

NM: No doubt about it. Helping us is the CleanSwell app, which allows the volunteers to log the trash they collect and gives them the ability to connect with each other.

GSB: What happens with all that trash?

NM: We recycle it where possible; unfortunately some has to go to the landfill. We now have a working group on up-cycling the trash into something else. Norton Point is one such partner who is turning the plastic trash into sunglasses.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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