By Nicole Woolcock
A curious, shining object glimmers through the tentacle-like arms of a knotted pile of kelp along the beach. Upon further inspection of the object, a pang of sadness dims the original excitement of coming across an interesting beach find. This is not a dazzling sea treasure but a piece of discarded trash.
“Often the plastic you pick up on the beach is something you’ve used and thrown away without thinking about it,” says Dr. Jenni Brandon, biological oceanographer and microplastics expert at Applied Ocean Sciences, “so you feel personally guilty for the problem.” She explains that microplastics—tiny pieces of plastic often undetected by the human eye—are found everywhere, including our oceans, food sources, wind, and sediment. This means we are ingesting microplastics every day.
As a global society, we dump nearly 8 million tons of plastic into the ocean each year. Seemingly innocuous daily items like single-use coffee cups, plastic bottles, straws, and plastic bags—the “Big 4” as climate activists refer to them—break down into microscopic threats to environmental ecosystems and human health.
Only in the last ten years has the scientific community begun to understand the impact of plastic pollution and identify potential remedies, in part thanks to Brandon’s pioneering research and persistent science communication efforts.
“I am a scientist today because of science journalism,” says Brandon. In 2010, a snippet in People magazine about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” left her aghast at plastic’s ubiquity in the ocean. As a marine biology student, she seized every opportunity to learn more about the effect of plastics on the marine environment. Her curiosity blossomed into a serious scientific inquiry, and she decided to pursue a PhD at UC San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography where she could research how many and what kinds of marine microplastics exist as well as determine how they enter the food web through plankton.
When she began her research, there were roughly five labs in the country focusing on microplastics. The field was new scientific territory. As her studies progressed, Brandon realized the importance of communicating science to the public, and she learned how to express her passion for ocean conservation beyond the lab environment.
In addition to sharing her own research at conferences and writing articles for media outlets, she taught a course for Scripps and UCSD undergraduate and graduate students on how to share their research in a way that resonates with informal audiences. She also collaborated with San Diego teachers to create engaging, open source Next Generation Science Standards-aligned curriculum, Project Phenomena, for elementary, middle, and high school grade levels.
“I was suddenly the expert on microplastics for all of Scripps and UC San Diego,” she says.
Brandon’s research focuses on the North Pacific, the area of sea between San Diego and Hawaii, where the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is located. A bit of a misnomer, she clarifies that this is not “an actual garbage patch, not an actual island” but “more like a soup…or smog of plastic.”
According to Brandon, microplastics constitute over 90% of the floating smog. While at sea collecting samples, Brandon exchanged the mesh nets researchers typically used for a stainless-steel bucket. This unconventional method allowed her to collect even smaller microplastic particles, which led to a staggering realization: “There was literally a million times more plastic than we thought was in the ocean.”
Despite the dismal statistics, Brandon remains infectiously enthusiastic about her research. The key to Brandon’s effervescent energy and perennial optimism: science Twitter, enduring friendships, and her Christian faith.
“As silly as this sounds, one of my refuges is science Twitter,” she chuckles, “We all just kind of talk to each other on there, and it’s really lovely. This idea that scientists are one-dimensional is very pervasive in society. We’re products of culture who have whole lives and families and cultural beliefs…who just really happen to love science and love the environment.”
Brandon’s influence extends beyond her research. She advocates for systemic change at the governmental level, encourages communities to work together to make local—yet globally impactful—changes, and educates young people who are growing into environmentally conscious adults. In fact, she now sees some of the results of her communication efforts. When speaking to audiences about how to combat plastic pollution, people—including school-age children—ask thoughtful questions about her research and truly care about reducing their plastic footprints.
This growth in public awareness about plastic pollution encourages Brandon, even as she acknowledges “the huge backward slide” in sustainable practices initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes communities bring reusables back now that more is known about COVID-19 transmission.
“The number of mini-bottles of hand sanitizer that were produced this year have to go somewhere, and some are going to end up recycled, and a lot of them are going to end up in a landfill. So, that stuff bums me out,” shares Brandon.
Despite the increase in single-use plastic waste, Brandon believes there is still time to save our deep blue seas. “I really try to focus on the wins we have made,” she reassures, “That’s the only way you can keep going.” She warns that how well we curb our preference for plastic over the next ten years will determine our success or failure.
Brandon invites everyone to consider: how can you reduce your plastic footprint?