• Institute for Sustainable Investing

Harnessing Citizen Science in the Battle Against Plastic Waste

A partnership between National Geographic Society, University of Georgia and Morgan Stanley offers ideas on how we all can help to reduce plastic waste (and, yes, there’s an app for that).

The breadth of the global plastic waste problem—especially its effects on oceans and landscapes—can seem so vast, you might think there’s little any one person can do to make a difference.

Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia professor and lead author of major studies on the issue, disagrees. In fact, she says, our daily choices do matter, regardless of how small they may seem. Jambeck co-developed the Debris Tracker, a mobile app introduced in 2010 that allows people all over the world to log pollution that they encounter and whether they have been able to clean it up.

This month, Morgan Stanley announced a partnership with National Geographic Society and the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering to “power” the Debris Tracker and scale citizen science for the prevention and reduction of plastic waste in coastlines and waterways. The Tracker is the only litter-tracking tool that enables users to learn by exploring and contributing to an open-data platform with over 2 million items tracked to date.

“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,” Jambeck says.

The app, which includes educational materials about the sources of, and solutions to, plastic waste, aggregates open-source data that helps Jambeck and other scientists model waste pathways in an effort to reduce pollution at its source. Since the app’s launch, thousands of people have logged and removed more than 2 million pieces of litter and debris all over the world, Jambeck says—figures that show the impact individuals can make when they choose to act and work collectively.

If every person would just make a small change, then, collectively, it would add up to a huge impact.

Turning the Tide on Plastic Waste

Jambeck’s seminal 2015 research, which helped set a baseline measurement for the amount of plastic debris that makes its way into the world’s oceans, helped illustrate the important role of population density as a determining factor. Not surprisingly, the more people who lived within 50 kilometers of an ocean shoreline, the more plastic pollution wound up in the nearby waterways.

“Before we conducted all this research, I wasn’t sure if it was true that our individual choices do matter,” says Jambeck. “But then we found that population density was a huge driver of ocean debris. So all of a sudden, I realized, wow, if every person would just make a small change, then, collectively, it would add up to a huge impact.”

In other words: Go ahead and grab that ceramic mug, cloth shopping bag and reusable water bottle, and use them instead of disposable alternatives. “And tell your friends about those changes too,” Jambeck says. Because, she explains, while recycling is important, “the best thing to do is not to produce waste in the first place.” 

The Morgan Stanley Plastic Waste Resolution

The partnership between Morgan Stanley, National Geographic Society and University of Georgia is the latest step in Morgan Stanley’s Plastic Waste Resolution, a multipronged initiative to help prevent, reduce and remove 50 million metric tons of plastic waste from entering the environment by 2030.

“We will bring together science, technology and education to engage citizen scientists to help combat the billion tons of plastic waste around the world,” says Tunde Wackman, Partnership Solutions Director at the National Geographic Society.

Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer and CEO of the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing, notes that addressing the issue of plastic pollution will require the cross-sector collaboration of government, philanthropy, industry, finance and individuals.

As part of Morgan Stanley’s Plastic Resolution, the firm will mobilize capital and other resources to help reduce plastic pollution, as well as guide investors to ways they can integrate the changing plastics economy into their investment decisions. A recent report from the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing describes how capital-market institutions “are essential to realizing a system-wide approach for reducing plastic waste by bringing innovations to market and by scaling solutions across the plastics value chain.”

 “Working to reduce the plastic waste that ends up in our oceans, rivers, landscapes and landfills is a problem as complex as it is critical,” Choi says. “Together with our clients, staff and communities, we can make a difference.”

Jambeck adds, “I think corporations like Morgan Stanley have a lot of potential for really helping on this issue.”

Citizen science tools like the Debris Tracker are examples of how spreading awareness of an issue can lead to better data.

A Career Centered on Marine Pollution

Jambeck, an environmental engineer and specialist in solid waste management, was part of an international academic working group that set out to quantify for the first time how much plastic was entering the Earth’s oceans from waste generated on land. Their paper, “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land Into the Ocean,” was published in 2015 in the prestigious journal Science.

Each year, Jambeck says, about eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean—the equivalent of “about a dump truck of plastic every minute.”

Citizen science tools like the Debris Tracker are examples of how spreading awareness of an issue can lead to better data, as well as wider public interest, Jambeck says. “Clearly, Morgan Stanley has the reach to make a difference, not only among its own employees but also with the wider community,” she says. “And then the firm is also putting resources toward solutions and improvements. I’d say that combination is pretty powerful.”

The Morgan Stanley Plastic Waste Resolution