“If you haven’t finished your surveys yet, come and see me!” A voice calls out over the crowd. A hundred or so people shuffle about the grassy embankment with white sand covering their feet, hands, and faces. Blaire Langston, leans towards me, her eyes scanning the crowd. “The hardest part is always getting people to come back and finish the second half of their surveys,” she says, the wind carrying away her voice. Myself and Langston, a graduate student in the department of Natural Resources at the University of Hawai‘i, stand behind a small, portable table, our faces shaded by big sunglasses and baseball caps. Behind us, more than a dozen pick-up trucks are parked haphazardly across the low-lying sand dune, their beds overflowing with fishing nets, weathered plastic bottles, and even a few toilet seats.
A few people come over to the table and Langston guides them through the second half of their surveys; she sifts through a 6-inch tall stack of papers trying to match people to their original surveys and periodically answering clarifying questions. Langston’s surveys are designed to capture the change in people’s perspectives on marine debris before and after their participation in a beach clean-up event, such as this one hosted by the Surfrider Foundation on the North Shore of Oahu. The scale of the event is impressive, and I admire the ability of Langston and other members of the Surfrider Foundation to organize the community, including numerous newcomers, to remove so much of the debris that was covering the beach just hours before.
As we stand there, Langston explains the full process of her study to me. Along with the surveys she distributes at beach cleaning events, she similarly conducts these surveys using only written educational materials presented to people who have not participated in these events. In these cases, she approaches beachgoers lounging beneath their umbrellas and asks them to participate in her simplified survey that includes an educational brochure for folks in lieu of actual beach clean-up participation.
For the final piece of her study, Langston conducts the surveys online, distributing them via email blasts and newspaper articles. The goal here being to reach individuals who are not actively on a beach tangibly connected to the environment but are rather sitting in their offices or living rooms. The comparison between these three surveys, she points out, is useful for showing the disconnect that is growing between people and the natural world. This approach helps address the psycho-social side of the marine debris problem by utilizing a human-centric approach for understanding the perspectives of people exposed differentially to marine debris. Langston’s research targets the environmental psychology associated with marine debris, an often understudied aspect, which guides our ability to conserve the environment and has world-changing potential.
The specific goal of this project is to address the growing lack of connection between people and place that has allowed the marine debris problem to become unmanageable. Langston is hopeful that her study will present a potential solution towards curtailing these issues. Bringing social science into the natural science laden world of environmental conservation is a growing field and, one that is gaining progressively more steam as people like Langston prove that community engagement is a crucial piece to conservation narratives. It is not hard for people directly involved in conservation to recognize that we are losing sight of the world around us and getting sucked into an increasingly technological era of mass production.
“Getting personally involved is a great way to improve one’s personal connection to the place and the issues,” Langston says. “It can really open your eyes.”
Langston’s novel approach to addressing marine debris does just that. It reaches people on an individual level through education and awareness to reduce their contributions to plastic pollution. This is an important distinction because, rather than fixating on simply removing plastics from the ocean (an issue not to be overlooked), she is actually trying to curtail the use of plastics and minimize the future impacts of this debris entering our waterways. This approach is also accessible to people from all walks of life, regardless of their education or background.
With looming environmental issues including climate change, the depletion of the earth’s natural resources, and mile-wide gyres of trash floating in our oceans, one of the simplest way for people to individually help improve the state of the environment is to implement changes in their own plastic consumption. Avoiding single-use plastics like straws and take-out containers is an easy way to reduce personal inputs to marine debris; helping to spread awareness about marine debris issues, and voting for legislation that limits the use of plastics are other ways for people to help. Perhaps even you, the reader, will now consider your individual choices, the impacts you have on the environment you love, and how even the smallest personal changes can have huge benefits.