• Institute for Sustainable Investing

Harnessing Citizen Science in the Battle Against Plastic Waste

Jenna Jambeck, a researcher dedicated to reducing global plastic waste, offers ideas on how we all can help (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 assistant 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’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 glass 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

Jambeck recently visited the firm’s headquarters on Earth Day to discuss her research in the context of the Morgan Stanley 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.

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 new 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.”

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.

“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.”

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.”

In addition to her scholarship, Jambeck is also a co-developer of the Marine 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.  The app, she says, is being rebranded this year simply as the “Debris Tracker,”so that people understand they can use it to document plastic waste wherever they encounter it. The open-source data also 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 1.5 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.

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