A Fun Approach for Educators to Engage Students in Insect Biodiversity & Climate Change

Game logo. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

Insects are not generally appealing to most, outside the “charismatic” colorful butterflies and beetles. How can flies and “maggots” be presented in an interesting and appealing way? The secret lies in exposing the insects’ secret lives. Did you know that you can use “maggots” to see if the water from a stream is good to drink? That there are primitive crane flies that have survived seemingly unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs (Jurassic period)? What if I told you there are entire families of flies that parasitize spiders as big as tarantulas? Or that there are fly larva living in rivers with ventral hydraulic suckers that keep them firmly attached to the submerged rocks?

How can you engage young minds in complex topics like climate change, conservation, endemism and bioindicators of environmental health in one fun package?

This free game is meant to serve both typically developing children and atypically developing children (such as those with mild autism and other special needs). The materials encompass written words which can be read by the child or out loud by the educator, photos for visual representation, and tactile pieces to enhance understanding.

There are two main components to this educational approach: 1) the game and 2) facilitated discussion (the role of the educator).

The Game. 

Students engage in a combination of topics including species discoveries, endemism, climate change, introduced species and biomonitoring through exploration, discovery and proactive thinking.

The game board itself is an artistic composite of satellite images of geological features and habitats of Patagonia (Aysén, Chile).

Game board with Explanation of Figures. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

As “explorers” the players set off into an unknown land traveling to different habitats looking for rare and new species of insects, which must be acquired through species-specific tools (insect net, tweezers, etc.) These tools can only be obtained by answering questions about the biodiversity. The questions will vary according to the age group of the players.

Along the way, players will encounter introduced species and will learn about their impact on the environment (how they displace/outcompete endemic species). Likewise, they will learn about the microhabitat of where each species inhabits.

The bioindicator approach is simple and aims to provide the students with a broad understanding of their use as bioindicators as well as a simplistic view of how to identify the groups themselves.

Along the way, the players may acquire, through the draw of a wild card, an “invasive species” and they will try to figure out a way to “deal with” (control) the invasive species that established itself in the player’s new land.

The game is meant to have a group approach. The player with the most species is not the winner, rather the object of the game is to discuss and interpret the various insects and their habitat information to create a balance.

The insects selected for this game prototype are a combination of new, charismatic and poorly known species. The insect information provided is based on scientific facts from peer-reviewed publications and accurate unpublished accounts of natural history of the selected species.

Species Card with Explanation of Figures. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

Facilitated Discussion (the role of the educator).

The educator does not need to be an expert in entomology to use this game with the students. The educator is meant to help facilitate the learning before and after the game is played. An introduction of broad topics such as biodiversity, ecosystems, etc. can be presented prior to playing the game. The focus can be based on how the game’s material fits with the curriculum requirements of the classroom.

At the end of the game the educator will guide a discussion among players to help each other to achieve “a planet in balance” based on the insects they collected. Further discussion is encouraged so that students reflect on what they learned and why it is important.

The goal of the facilitated discussion is to encourage the students to explain their reasoning for how they played the game and their strategy of creating a diverse, healthy ecosystem. There is potential for many perspectives and outcomes, which creates a more powerful learning process.

R. Isaí Madriz acquiring torrent midge information for the game. Photo by Anand Varma.

Note: This learning tool was inspired by ten years of education, conservation and scientific experience working with local communities across the Americas in conservation topics to help educators engage their students and bring the wonders of exploration and scientific discoveries into the classroom.

This game and its components can be adapted to any part of the world in dimensions as small as a county to as large as a continent and beyond. As well, this game and its components/content can be adapted for diverse learning styles and is currently being developed in Spanish and English. 

*For more information including rules of the game and access to PDFs of the components, please reach out through the comment section of this blog or write to [email protected]

Follow Isaí Madriz on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Equipment used for this nine month project is courtesy of Fulbright, National Geographic, Iridium, Alpacka Raft, Aqua-BoundBoo Bicycles, Kokatat, Seal Line, Osprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

Originally posted 2018-05-03 06:29:00.

Changing our Solipsism: Saving Ourselves from Ourselves and FURTHER Film Festival

Solipsism is the belief in the idea that my self and my mind is the only thing that I can be certain of. If this is something people struggle with, then a path to overcoming it would be found in the last two days of the Explorers Festival.

This past Saturday a main question was asked: How do we save ourselves from ourselves? This is the question that guided the daylong event. It was hosted by Stephanie Ruhle and Kenny Broad. Ruhle is an anchor at MSNBC and correspondent at NBC News. She was the first journalist to break the 2012 story of the “London Whale,” identifying the trader behind the JPMorgan Chase $2 billion trading loss. After she told us that story of how it happened she said: “Everyone can make an impact, everyone can do one thing to make an impact.” Broad is a National Geographic Explorer and environmental anthropologist who, as he said, has one feet in academia and one feet in exploration. Recently he was with explorer Corey Jaskolski in Petra, Jordan helping create digital copies of what is there with the newest technologies. This is what also allowed for the Tomb of Christ exhibition to exist and bring us VR and 3D experiences of the Holy Sepulchre to Washington, DC.

Hosts Stephanie Ruhle and Kenny Broad. Photograph by Taylor Mickal

A series of panels followed. The first one was titled: “What tipped the scale?” and was moderated by Andrew Revkin. Some of the ideas that came from this introspective look into what we have done to unbalance the scale included the shortcomings of academia, and an invitation for us to get out of our filter bubbles. Panelists included Victoria HerrmannEmma MarrisLeland Melvin, and Iain Stewart. Melvin, an astronaut, said that the planet isn’t fragile, we are. That is why we need to work together as the human race to connect with each other in this pale blue dot we are fortunate enough to inhabit.

The second panel was titled: “What does balance look like?” which was moderated by Ian Urbina. Panelists included Mustafa Santiago AliJonathan BaillieJess Cramp, and Natalie Jofler. Some of the ideas and questions that came from the panel were: How does human and wildlife conflict exist? Why don’t we often talk about it? What are the inter-generational climate effects? How do they affect our communities and their balance? A pointed question was also asked by an attendee: Is there a case in which balance is not what needs to be done? And the panelists, especially Ali, said that yes there are cases. Environmental injustices all across the nation and the world are not balanced, as they ignore some communities, and we have to sometimes flip things on their head. We need to recognize whose values we are defending or acquiring while deciding to tip the scale a certain way or another. And to include the values and human dignity of those communities would actually look more like balance. We need to celebrate human cleverness too, added Baillie, and have a sense of possibility to go towards that balance.

Lunch time. Photograph by Taylor Mickal

Then came lunch time. And from Grosvenor Auditorium we headed to the National Geographic cafeteria. This is where we – Explorers, panelists, and other attendees – all sat next to each other to not only enjoy our lunch, but to come up with solutions to these very problems we were immersed in earlier. We came up with some compromises and ideas. On my table, for example, we said that to save ourselves from ourselves we will: start with empathy, communicate a sense of urgency, while working hand-in-hand with the manufacturing and other businesses that can create solutions from the inside, and thus caring about ourselves and our planet.

A panel titled “How far can tech get us?” followed lunch. It was moderated by NPR’s Laura Sydell, and asked questions like: With our future hanging on this aforementioned balance, how should we harness technology? Should we focus our efforts on reversing what we have helped bring about, or is it more practical to use technology to help us adapt to the troubled environment in which we live? Of course, tech can get us as far as time, resources, and imagination can. But only if we use the tools we have created, and will continue to create, responsibly. Panelists included Cory DoctorowDavid Gruber, Arthur Huang, and Jessica Trancik. Some of the ideas that were brought up included: How to go around risk homeostasis, the effects of the United States withdrawing from the COP 21, how we’ve created environmental problems with technology that was supposed to solve another previous environmental or economic problems, how convenience might not be always the way to go, and finally how we need to understand the limits of growth.

“How Far Can Tech Get Us?” Photograph by Taylor Mickal

The last panel of the day was aptly titled “Ignite Change” and was moderated by Susan Goldberg. Panelists included Vicki Arroyo, Heather Koldewey, Lyndon Rive, and Dekila Chungyalpa. Chungyalpa said that we need to reach people where they’re at. If they’re religious they will listen to a religious leader more often than not. If they love Instagram posts with a stunning picture, reach them there. And give them alternatives and options. A question from an attendee was: What can people do? The answers from the panel included things like thinking about how to engage locally, to stop being isolated from one another, and find and build communities that care about each other and what is in their world from within. It concluded with an invitation to believe in ourselves and in each other’s capacities to effect change.

Then, on Sunday, we engaged and witnessed the inspiring work of explorers in the field with the second annual FURTHER Film Festival. It showcased the work of explorers such as Jane Goodall, Topher White in the Brazilian amazon, Asha Stuart photographing and filming the gypsy communities of Rajasthan crossing the Thar dessert, the Symphony of Our World, some upcoming Costa Rican footage from Untamed with Filipe DeAndrade, a film titled “Person of the Forest” showing us the similarities and dangers orangutans face in the wild, the first installment in the collaboration of Clare Fieseler and Gabby Salazar showcasing the diversity of women in science and the issues they face with their short-film “Outnumbered in Africa,” as well as many others.

Clare Fieseler and Gabby Salazar present “Outnumbered in Africa” with Greg McGruder. Photograph by Rolf Sjogren

As a matter of closure for this year’s festival I wanted to offer a reflection. This week-long festival should leave us hopeful. Inspired to know that we can effect change responsibly. Because when you have responsibility for someone else, it changes the dynamic. It changes the way we perceive others and the world. Solipsism might make us forget about others, but powerful and emotional storytelling can help connect with those that don’t know much about something and get them feeling part of this world too. What are we doing to tell these stories and how can we change those things we care about? These two are very important questions to help solve the problems of today and tomorrow. And I think that the importance of a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach that bridges ethics with science and technology, literature with innovation and communication, cannot be stressed enough. Recognizing the silos, identities, and tribes we inhabit, and then rising above our natures is also necessary. This, in order to cure the only-we-do-something-about-our-world mentality as it happens. When we get from solipsism to recognizing our interdependency and interconnectedness with the world we inhabit, and seeing it is also our world, we shall know and effect balance.

Originally posted 2018-06-19 23:05:30.

Igniting the Spark: Explorers Symposium (Day 2) and Party for the Planet

If yesterday was a day in which we focused on the connections and the connective tissue that we share by being part of this planet and thanks to our work at National Geographic, then today is the day that we identify some of the catalysts, some of the sparks, that will be ignited.

On the Explorers Symposium’s second day, National Geographic Explorers, educators, and staff members took to the stage at Grosvenor Auditorium for a series of panel sessions, updates from the field, as well as lightning-round talks to further our shared mission of reaching a planet in balance.

And to further that goal, the morning started with a surprise announcement. Women around the world will be benefitting from the bridge that the Lyda Hill Foundation is providing for their explorations to become a reality. They pledged a 1 million dollar grant in order to support women in exploration around the world.

Following is a synoptic view of the day:

At first we heard from Beverly and Dereck Joubert who are National Explorers-at-Large and co-founders of the Big Cats Initiative, in a short update from the field. Emma Carrasco, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer and Executive Vice President for Global Strategy for the National Geographic Society, led a conversation in which not only did the Jouberts tell us the importance of their work, but also updated us on the buffalo charge that they both survived last year. Even after a near-death experience their work hasn’t stopped, providing an example of resilience and courage amidst the difficulties they faced.

Beverly and Dereck Joubert in conversation with Emma Carrasco. Photograph by Taylor Mickal

Afterwards we heard from a panel moderated by Explorer Shivani Bhalla in which coexistence and balance were determined as essential for living with wildlife. Some of her guests included Pablo García Borboroglu, Asha de Vos, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, and Laly Lichtenfeld. We then saw some work in progress from a few explorers and what they’re doing to protect trees, amphibians, and gorillas. These updates were from Tarin Toledo-Aceves, Brian Gratwicke, and Deogratias Tuyisingize.

We then had a session in which Joel Sartore showed us that we need to reach people where they are at and that by playing to the ego and to what gets people’s attention will result in them caring for something that they didn’t care for before like an animal from his Photo Ark. He also became a panelist in company of the inaugural Photo Ark EDGE Fellows, and those are: Jamal Galves, Marina Rivero Hernández, Vinicius Alberici Roberto, Daniel Arauz, and Yajaira García Feria. They all shared with moderator Gael Almeida why it is that every animal deserves a story. Among the great lessons was the fact that these fellows saw a need and they decided to fill it and solve it. Galves also told us the story of a baby manatee he saved and named Lucky and how although an animal can’t speak, it doesn’t mean it has nothing to say.

Photo Ark EDGE Fellows. Photograph by Taylor Mickal

We later heard from a panel moderated by Catherine Workman that told us about the secret lives of animals. Shane Gero then shared how important the vocal and matrilineal cultures, dialects and identities formed by sperm whales in Dominica are vital. He also shared his view on how we need to include the cultural diversity of species into our concept of biodiversity. Some other stories about animal’s secret lives came from Jacinta C. Beehner, Thomas Peschak, and Mimi Kessler.

Afterwards we had an update from the field by Brian Skerry where he showed us a photo he took of President Obama while snorkeling, and how Sylvia Earle told him she was blue with envy about the opportunity. After all, this photo would inspire and ignite change by seeing a sitting President of the United States enjoying the places he was about to protect. Skerry also wrote a poem about the cousin of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, which he named the Azorax, who lives in the seas, and hopes that we can all protect them, please! He brought tears to more than one.

A panel exploring cutting-edge solutions followed. Technology has and continues to change the way we explore our planet, said explorer Albert Lin who also moderated the panel. He also said that technology is just a byproduct of human imagination. Just think of the beginning of our use of telephones and lightbulbs a century ago and how they created possibilities that didn’t exist before. On the panel we also had Martin Wikelski who spoke about his project on the “Internet of Animals” which uses the internet of things via satellite as a valuable tool for understanding different species. We also heard from Topher White and Peg Keiner, who appropriately expressed that everyone can connect emotionally with a journey, with a story.

A panel on Cutting-Edge Solutions. Photograph by Taylor Mickal

Kaitlin Yarnall, Vice President for Media Innovation for the National Geographic Society, then moderated a panel about data-driven storytelling. We heard about using data in creative ways which can create a story that is not only visually appealing, but it also inspires action. The panel had Dan HammerJeff KerbyXaquin V.G., and Jennifer W. Lopez. Later we saw some explorations in progress from Katy Croff BellCharlie Hamilton JamesDavid Gruber, and Anand Varma, and had a glimpse into their innovative and stunning work.

Making the case for nature was the topic of the next panel moderated by Andy Revkin, and in it we heard from Steve Ramirez, Julia Lee, Emma Marris, and David Doubilet. The main question we explored was: How do we communicate nature effectively and make people empathize in order to act? Neuroscience, photography, and journalism, all were highlighted.

Revkin then delighted us with a song titled “Liberated Carbon” for the closing performance of the symposium.

Andy Revkin performing “Liberated Carbon.” Photograph by Taylor Mickal

Later that night after the symposium wrapped up, we went out to the courtyard in order to enjoy each other’s company in what was deemed the Party for the Planet. And indeed, it was. It included cocktails, sustainable food, as well as different stations where you could take the plastic pledge to significantly reduce the amount of plastic we put out into the world. Which reminds me of another feature of the night: there was no single-use plastic! This means that we continue leading by example. We also had a performance by The Suffers that included jazz, cumbias, and some ska to get us all dancing even more.

Not only would you see fellow Explorers and National Geographic staff members interacting with one another, and maybe imagining the next project that would start from these conversations, but the ignition happened as well with sharing one of the common denominators of our social and human experiment: dancing. And as Uruguayan Jorge Drexler reminds us: humans have been dancing since cavemen. And we haven’t stopped since. As I said before, this movement, this dance, is essentially human. “Dancing as a belief/as heritage/as a game.”

And if this humanity we share helps us realize an emotional connection with nature through a character such as an animal, that might have a secret life but still deserves a story, then with technology and innovation these shared characteristics can become a spark. Let’s continue drinking from the inspirational firehose, and ignite change.

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Originally posted 2018-06-16 22:14:34.

Connective Tissue: Explorers Symposium (Day 1) and National Geographic Awards

We are always part of interrelated processes of momentary events. That is what one of my mentors in college used to explain to us, his students, during the Buddhist Philosophy course. He was teaching us about the interconnectivity of it all, according to a buddhist system of thought called abhidharma. Nothing is independent. Everything is interdependent.

And this interconnectedness, as well as human ingenuity – as expressed by Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President, Science and Exploration, Jonathan Baillie – was evident on the first day of the Explorers Symposium, where 30 National Geographic Explorers, educators, and staff members took to the stage at Grosvenor Auditorium for a series of panel sessions, updates from the field, as well as lightning-round talks to further our shared mission of reaching a planet in balance. Some ideas that were shared and that inspired us yesterday included:

National Geographic Explorer-at-Large, Bob Ballard explained how the Age of Exploration is in our future, and that we’ll explore more of Earth than all previous generations combined. This, while embracing creative thinking and asking ourselves what are new ways to look at old problems in company of Kavita Gupta, Kakani Katija, Steven Brumby, Corey Jaskolski, and with moderator Jonathan Baillie.

Jonathan Baillie, BoB BALLARD, KAKANI KATIJA, Corey Jaskolski, Steven Brumby, and AVITA GUPTA. Photograph by Taylor Mickal

Misconceptions and a healthy skepticism permeated at a panel session where Lee Berger shared that we should be humble by understanding that, “the more we find, the more we don’t know,” and where Kim Young also argued that in our interconnected world of telecommunications there might also be an intergenerational shift happening from “Who am I?” to “Who are we?” The panel also included contributions on identity from Gyaneshwer Chaubey, Evgenia Arbugaeva, and which was moderated by Jamie Shreeve.

We got updates from the field from three different explorers. We furthered our understanding, and our shared humanity was highlighted, with an update from the field from Paul Salopek and his Out of Eden Walk. Emmanuel Merode shared with us what is going on from the front lines of conservation over at Virunga National Park in Congo, and the courageous resilience that is necessary to work there every day. And we also heard from Steve Boyes about his #Cuando18 expedition to protect the Okavango River Basin and Delta with the Okavango Wilderness Project team.

We saw work in progress from a few explorers like Stephen Humphreys with the rehabilitation of veterans through archaeology and exploration, as well as Tatjana Rosen and her critical work in saving one of the most introverted felines, snow leopards.

In order to see more of what our human connection is to one another, and how we can find empathy and encourage sustainability, we heard from Losang Rabgey and her educational experiments with cultural empathy and social innovation as catalyzers, in a panel with Aziz Abu Sarah, Erika Larsen, Sayed Gul Kalash, and which was moderated by Debra Adams Simmons.

We heard about the challenges and the different strategies being taken with private and public partnerships in order to protect the critical habitats of Earth’s Last Wild Places from Dominique Gonçalves, Sean Gerrity, Enric Sala, Naftali Honig, and with moderator David Quammen.

We changed our perceptions, and saw science and storytelling as some of the tools we need to use in order to address the problem of plastic waste in order to connect with people around the world from a panel introduced by Sylvia Earle, moderated by Valerie Craig, and featuring Heather Koldewey, Lillygot Sedeghat, Imogen Napper, and Jenna Jambeck.

Janni Benavides from my home country of Colombia delighted us with a song for the closing performance of the symposium. It is an ode to the creeks, rivers, and other parts of the ecosystems around the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.

Later that night, after the symposium wrapped up, we were delighted and carried away with Ravi Patel‘s humor and wit while he hosted the National Geographic Awards last night, reminding us of the power found in how we can overcome the obstacles of the present to solve the problems of the future, and connect ourselves to a shared cause that unites us all: our planet. Last night’s awardees included Ma Jun, Léonidas NzigiyimpaPablo García Borboroglu, Carolyn Porco, Joel Sartore, former president of Chile Michelle Bachelet, and Peter Raven. The award ceremony also featured special performances by Melissa Etheridge, Ben Harper, and Amber Riley.

Pablo García Borboroglu and LÉONIDAS NZIGIYIMPA. Photograph by Taylor Mickal

But I not only found meaning and inspiration in the great events of Explorers Symposium and the National Geographic Awards. In the past couple of days I found synchronicity and serendipity as well in the little things, in the details of what appeared to be mundane. While going back to work I ran into Explorer-in-Residence, Enric Sala in an elevator ride where we spoke enthusiastically about soccer and the World Cup that started yesterday; I saw Ronan Donovan and Stephen Wilkes getting coffee near the headquarters, and recognized the meeting of two of the world’s best photographers; while walking to the National Geographic cafeteria I saw explorers Asha de Vos, Sylvia Earle, and – as of last night, Buffett Award winner – Pablo García Borboroglu, smiling at a camera in the courtyard while someone snapped a photograph of the smiles of three of the most dedicated defenders of the world’s marine wildlife.

This all reminds me of the connections we have with one another. It reminds me of how simple and yet how hard it is sometimes to reach out and join one another for a higher purpose.

I ask, as a matter of conclusion: What if changing the world started with chance encounters of the world’s leading change-makers by highlighting our connective tissue?

I’m glad to be able to witness these connections from yesterday’s symposium, and I can’t wait to watch what other connections are made later today in this world renowned forum of the minds. (Don’t forget you can stream today’s symposium live, here).

Originally posted 2018-06-15 19:32:44.

Turn the Plastic Tide—for Seabirds, the Environment, and Human Health

When the United States Embassy in New Zealand asks if you’ll do an Earth Day post about impacts of mismanaged waste on the global environment—with a focus on seabirds—what do you do? Quick, call Lilly Sedaghat and Steph Borrelle!

Sedaghat is one of my four fellow Fellows (2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, that is), currently studying waste management in Taiwan. Borrelle is a seabird researcher I’ve worked with during my own storytelling project in New Zealand. She’s based in Auckland but will soon head to Canada as a Smith Fellow focusing on mitigation of plastic pollution.

This week Borrelle, Sedaghat, and I had a group video chat about the plastic problem: what’s so bad about the situation we’re in (for seabirds, humans, and the environment), and what we can do about it. Our conversation about this massive topic is massively simplified below…

Lilly Sedaghat, Steph Borrell, and Abby McBride

How does plastic pollution affect humans and the environment? (And how do seabirds fit into that story?)

Plastic is flooding into the ocean with ever-growing speed: around 8 million metric tons of it entered the sea in 2010, projected to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025. Besides being disturbing to think about, that gargantuan amount of nondecomposing material does all sorts of damage. One of plastic’s most insidious roles, Borrelle said, is as a sponge for toxins. When animals eat microplastics and are in turn eaten by other animals, those toxins get passed up the food chain and concentrated in apex predators—like seabirds, and humans.

In some parts of the world, including New Zealand, humans may actually ingest toxin-laced plastics through seabirds. As we speak, there’s a traditional annual seabird harvest happening on the southern New Zealand islands, just off of Rakiura (where I’m stationed right now). About 400,000 sooty shearwaters—known by Māori as tītī—are harvested on these islands every year, Borrelle said. She is working on a project involving the passage of toxins from plastics to seabirds to humans, and has colleagues studying how that phenomenon “is being translated into human health impacts.” It’s an issue particularly in need of investigation, she noted, because these indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by other negative social and economic factors.

Unsurprisingly, plastic can also harm the seabirds themselves. Toxins carried by ingested microplastics can be absorbed into body tissues; many such chemicals are estrogen mimickers that can cause reproductive problems. Larger plastic fragments pose other problems with fatal results—they can damaging internal organs when eaten, or simply entangle and drown wildlife. The biggest problem, Borrelle said, is when parents feed chicks a regurgitated meal containing plastics, which ends up killing the young birds through starvation and dehydration. Zooming out to the population level, a lot remains to be studied. Borrelle is in the midst of a project looking at the factors that might influence seabirds to ingest plastic, to see if it’s possible to predict the risk for species we don’t have data on yet. She has hopes to get more studies running, with the collaboration of groups such as the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust, to find out more about plastic ingestion and the impacts on wildlife in understudied regions.

It pays to investigate these effects on seabirds, and not just for their own sake. Being long-lived and slow-reproducing animals that spend their lives on the ocean, seabirds are particularly good bioindicators of ocean health. “They’ve been telling us about these sort of plastic pollution levels since the 1970s,” Borrelle said. “New Zealand was one of the first places we found plastic in birds,” specifically in fairy prions washed up on the beach. In the northern hemisphere, she said, a study on northern fulmars is “one of the longest and most extensive plastic ingestion monitoring programs for any species,” but much more study is needed in the southern hemisphere. Seeing Antarctic albatrosses coming from the southern ocean with plastic in them, Borrelle said, brings home the direness of the situation.

What can people do to turn the tide of plastic pollution?

To combat the plastic problem, individual people can take responsibility for their trash—in terms of choosing and using materials, as well as channeling those materials onward to waste management systems. Sedaghat is leading by example: she is currently video-blogging her 12-day zero-plastic waste challenge, and on an ongoing basis is providing resources for people to understand waste management systems and how best to use them (e.g. “7 things you didn’t know about plastic and recycling“).

But in order to navigate that complexity, people have to care—enough to pay attention and change their habits. Borrelle has encountered plenty of resistance while working to make the city of Auckland plastic-bag free. “People like convenience,” she said. “A lot of people tend to resist change when they think it’s going to affect their quality of life.” One way of convincing people that the effort is worthwhile: putting the unsavory effects of plastic into the forefront of public consciousness. Sedaghat is currently working on ways of doing that in Taiwan. “A lot of the challenge has to do with people not visually seeing or being affected personally in their own lives by the results of plastic over the long term: how it affects sea animals, how it affects the human body.”

So educating individuals on consumption, disposal, and effects of plastic is vital. But individuals’ ability to control their own plastic use and disposal depends on many factors, including what products are available to them and what waste management systems are set up where they live. A recycling symbol, Sedaghat notes, is by no means a guarantee that waste is being recycled. In both New Zealand and Taiwan, a lot of “recycling” is currently going straight to the dump (more so now that China has stopped accepting imports of plastic waste), simply because there are insufficient facilities and systems in place. “Recycling companies are only effective if there’s money to be made off those recycled products,” Sedaghat said.

That concept holds true at the production end as well as the disposal end. “Everything comes down to the market, and the price in the market, and what people want in the market,” Sedaghat said. Real change comes from governments pushing against the big industries that have control over the market—which in case of plastics is none other than the petroleum industry. So how can individuals play a role in that change? How can you make a dent in the sea of plastic packaging that greets you in the supermarket, or a city-wide waste system that channels your recycling to the dump?

I asked if community groups provide that much-needed bridge between individuals and the larger political and economic game, and Sedaghat and Borrelle concurred. “Community groups have been the strongest leaders in actually pushing forward these kinds of initiatives,” Borrelle said. She cited the case of New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, where islanders had their own system with “an incredibly high quality of recoverable waste” that was in high demand for overseas buyers.  “That kind of grassroots movement is really important for providing evidence to governments that people actually want to see change.”

Steph Borrelle, Lilly Sedaghat, and Abby McBride

What’s the outlook for the plastic problem?

There are parallels between the anti-plastic mission, Borrelle said, and the crusade against smoking that began in the 20th century. Notably, each of those movements has involved standing up against the marketing and lobbying of a giant industry. “Plastic and oil are intimately related,” she said. “Eight percent if not more of the oil extracted every year is turned into plastic products—so you are fighting against this massive propoganda machine.”

That battle includes dispelling fear-mongering rooted in industry interests. “The idea that you would ‘lose jobs’ is a scary thought, but the reality is that people will adapt to what the market desires,” Sedaghat said. She described a situation in Taiwan where plastic manufacturers—many of them small family businesses—adapted instantly to a demand for corn starch plastics by overseas companies. “They literally just take the same system, same machines, and they just insert the corn-based pellets versus the oil-based pellets into the machines to create the plastics,” she said.  “And they’re able to do that because there’s money that’s made.”

As the smoking status quo has taken decades upon decades to shift, we can expect a similarly prolonged time frame for improvement in plastic waste management. “Social change can be super slow,” Borrelle said, yet it snowballs as people are influenced by the shifting attitudes of their peers. In another parallel, methods that proved effective in changing attitudes about smoking can be applied to plastics. One such strategy for inducing change—particularly at the legislative level—is focusing on human health impacts, which are closely tied to environmental health impacts particularly where plastics are concerned.

Despite the rampant overuse of plastic bags and other single-use products that will never decompose and really shouldn’t be brought into the world by sane humans, it’s important to remember that plastics are invaluable for certain purposes, Borrelle said. Among other things they can offer crucial benefits in medical fields, furnish vital access to clean water and food, and help save the day after natural disasters. But plastic production and use needs to be accompanied by an infrastructure that can actually handle the waste, without the egregious environmental damage we’re seeing right now.

“It’s always more complex than these really simplistic ideas that get bandied about,” Borrelle said. “But if we don’t do anything, the long-term impacts are going to be incredibly severe.”

This has been a very superficial dip into a deep issue that I’m just starting to learn about. To really dive into it, follow Steph Borrelle and Lilly Sedaghat as they each investigate how to turn the plastic tide—for the benefit of seabirds, humans, and everything else.

Originally posted 2018-04-20 03:00:08.

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