Marine Debris Masterpiece

by: Cass Nieman (Duke CEM student)

Fourth-graders at St. Egbert Catholic School are finishing up the DUML Community Science Initiative’s first year-long program on marine debris. Throughout the school year, these students have participated in various activities, incorporating math, art, literature, civics, science, and technology lesson plans into the curriculum in order to explain the detrimental effects litter and plastic use have on the marine environment.


One of the biggest events of the year was a beach cleanup at Bird Shoal Island. Mr. Foster’s class met at the Duke Marine Lab and rode over in one of the university’s vessels. When they got to the island, it was time for them to scour the beach for as much trash and plastic as could be found, and they did not disappoint! The haul tipped the scales at a whopping 281 pounds. After the fourth-graders finished up collecting as much as they could bring back with them, they cleaned the plastic and trash with vinegar and washed it with soap and water.

Mr. Foster’s fourth-grade class picking up trash on Bird Shoal

Next, the students came up with a plan for how to put it all together into a piece of art that would teach the community about everything they had learned. They voted and decided to create a bottlenose dolphin, a whale, and a shark to be placed on a triangular orange warning sign that they found. When asked what they wanted their artwork to show, one fourth-grader responded,

“I think it shows people that you can recycle your trash and use it for other reasons.”

Two other students added,

“We wanted to show them that we can take care of our environment” and “how much trash that we collected in just a couple hours.”

Marine debris sculpture made by St. Egbert fourth-graders

Well you all have a chance to see firsthand how much trash one class picked up in just an hour, cleaned, and turned into art. This summer, check out St. Egbert’s marine debris sculpture (along with art from other participating schools) showcased in the North Carolina Maritime Museum in downtown Beaufort!


After going through this year-long program, the students were asked what they had learned. One student said,

“I learned that we should pick up the beach and trash not only to help the environment but to help the animals and people who want to enjoy it.”

Another explained the dynamics of how long it takes for different items to breakdown naturally:

“An apple core can take 3 months and a diaper can take 450 years. Glass breaks down, but it never fully degrades.”

Word cloud created from the words used in evaluations with the fourth graders at St. Egbert regarding the year-long program

The fourth-graders took what they have learned throughout the marine debris program and decided to make changes to their own lives in order to protect the ocean, prevent the negative effects humans have on it, and inspire others to do the same. Students have taken vows to recycle what they can, compost biodegradable items, pick up litter, and use paper products rather than plastic. In addition to all of these adjustments made to their everyday lives, they have been proactive in urging their friends and families to do the same.


Check out some essays students wrote about their beach cleanup field trip:






Do Anemones Eat Microplastics?

Written by: Cass Nieman  — MEM student at Duke Marine Lab

The presence of microplastics in marine environments is a growing problem as the production of plastic is continually increasing, and much of what is manufactured breaks down––or is already small–– and finds its way to the ocean. These microplastics are often mistaken for food, and as it travels up the food web, so does its toxicity and the harm it transfers from species to species. Researchers at the Duke Marine Lab (DUML) have found that sea anemones have a taste for these plastics. In order to investigate anemone taste preferences, students at East

Aiptasia pallida with ingested plastic

Carteret High School performed experiments offering sea anemones (Aiptasia pallida) an array of plastics that may breakdown into microplastics.

On Day 1 of their experiment, the AP Environmental Science students made predictions about whether styrofoam, marine debris, plastic bags, or plastic pellets would be preferred by the anemones. They practiced their tests by selecting one of the various plastics and holding it near the tentacles of the anemones to see if they would attach to and/or ingest it. After some trial and error, the students came up with the best method so that the process would be standardized across the class, and results would not differ from student to student. They also found that one of the plastics needed to be a little smaller in order for the experiment to work. This step was crucial to working out all the kinks so that data could be collected the following day. One point that we really wanted to emphasize with them is that science cannot happen without failure. In order to learn what does work, we often must first learn what does not.

ECHS students offer microplastics to sea anemones

On Day 2, the young researchers used their honed skills to run their tests and gather the numbers for each type of plastic. They used this data on Day 3 as they came up with the percentage of attachment, percentage of ingestion, and average retention time for each plastic. In addition to each group’s calculations, they came together as a whole to find the class averages for each category and each plastic. This was important as it allowed students to compare and contrast anemone preference. Students could also hypothesize about explanations. It was great to listen in on the student’s thought processes and all of the creative reasons there might be for one type of plastic to be ingested and held longer than another.

Student-made graph displaying average retention times for different microplastics

This project connects local students to DUML research and our changing marine habitat. It’s so exciting and encouraging to see high school student scientists interested in environmental research and interested in making a change themselves. After seeing the effect that plastic had on marine organisms firsthand, one ECHS student said it best:

“The enemy of the anemone is my enemy.”


Scroll through some of the amazing ECHS presentations:

Effects of Microplastics on Anemones – Timothy Datokah Aidan

Microplastics in Corals – Scotty Jernigan, Taylor Savitski, and Jillian Kelley

Microplastic Impacts on Corals – John Brooks, Maceo Donald, and Eirene Hynes

MES Marine Debris Mural

The ocean mural created by the Green Team at the beginning of the week

In order to show their classmates the effect humans and our trash have on the oceans, the Green Team at Morehead City Elementary School created an ocean mural and progressively added debris to it throughout the week. They started with a mural of an empty ocean, then filled it with beautiful marine life and put it on display in the cafeteria. One student on the Green Team, who helped create the mural, wrote:

Little did they know in a few days they were going to get a look at our real ocean, the one that isn’t perfect like in the movies.

About a week later, the Green Team went back and added trash and other everyday objects to their mural to show how marine debris that humans generate may interact with marine life and the ocean ecosystem.

The same mural at the end of the week, complete with marine debris

This activity demonstrated the idea that “away is not away” – when we throw away garbage, it doesn’t disappear. If it doesn’t make it to the landfill, it may eventually end up in the ocean, where marine life may become entangled or mistake it for prey.

The student wrote that her classmates were shocked by the transformation of the mural. When change happens slowly, like the accumulation of marine debris on local beaches, people are slow to notice, but if the same change happened quickly, like the transformation of the mural, people would be shocked at the true impacts humans have on marine ecosystems. At the end of this activity, the student wrote:

It really showed how unaware they are of what is really happening and what problems we are facing. I hope this project will inspire other kids to learn more about reducing, reusing, and recycling.

To hear her full perspective on the MES marine debris mural, read the rest of her letter below!

Ocean Friendly Establishments

Americans alone use a whopping 500 million straws each day and 5 billion plastic bags each year, which adds to the estimated 17 million tons of plastic that enters the ocean every year. The Ocean Friendly Establishments certification program was created to reduce single-use plastics along the coast of North Carolina, with an initial goal of tackling plastic straw use by urging restaurants to only offer straws upon request.

Originally started by Plastic Ocean Project, Inc. and the Cape Fear Surfrider Chapter in Wilmington, NC, this program has since expanded to a coast-wide effort in our state. As an ambassador for the Plastic Ocean Project, I am involved in the Ocean Friendly Establishments program on the Crystal Coast and Outer Banks areas, and I work with our awesome partners at Jennette’s Pier, Bogue Banks and Outer Banks Surfrider Chapters, Crystal Coast Waterkeeper, and Sierra Club Croatan Group.

Cavalier Surf Shop in Nags Head, NC

One issue this program has started to address is plastic bag use. I was in high school when the Outer Banks bag ban went into effect, which I remember being pretty controversial—it was the first ban of its kind in the state. Most businesses adapted quickly to the change, recognizing the value of their commitment to reduce plastic and that this simple change has tremendous impact on the health of our environment.

Recently, the plastic bag ban implemented on the Outer Banks ten years ago was repealed. Despite what many locals and passionate advocates wanted, the ban was lifted, and businesses could go back to using plastic bags. However, many businesses weren’t convinced plastic was the answer and continued to offer only paper or reusable bags to their customers.

Roadside Bar & Grill in Duck, NC

To formally recognize these businesses and persuade others to not use plastic bags, the Ocean Friendly Establishments program was expanded from straw use at restaurants to plastic bag use at any establishment, including retailers.

The response we’ve gotten so far is incredible. After a whirlwind of certifying 20 new Ocean Friendly Establishments in just over one week on the Outer Banks, businesses are now approaching us with interest of becoming certified. Their enthusiasm and support for this program is humbling, as is their commitment to protecting our beautiful coast. Growing up on the Outer Banks inspired my passion to protect coastal ecosystems, and it is so fulfilling to work with like-minded people that sincerely want to make a change!

-Sam Burdick, DUML Community Science Outreach Member

A Marine Debris Valentine’s Day

Nobody loves marine debris, so Valentine’s Day may seem like a strange time to write a blog about it. However, we think about marine debris every day, and Valentine’s Day is no exception! Here are a few happier ways to incorporate marine debris into your celebrations of love:

Make an upcycled valentine: Unfortunately, your local beach or waterway likely contains a lot of debris. Fortunately, you can give that debris a new purpose! Collect and clean marine debris, then use it to craft an upcycled valentine for someone you love! Here are some of our ideas:

  • Flip-flop heart: Flip flops are a common find on beach cleanups; if you find a pair, matched or mismatched, you can overlap them to form a heart!
  • Message in a bottle: Plastic bottles are another commonly collected type of debris. Wash one out, decorate, and put your own message inside! When you’re done with it, be sure to recycle!
  • Mosaic valentine: Small pieces of plastic may break off when an object gets weathered and becomes brittle, or even before plastic enters the ecosystem. Gather up as many red, pink, and purple pieces as you can find on the beach, and use them to make a mosaic valentine!

Blow bubbles instead of blowing up balloons: Balloons can be extremely dangerous to wildlife if they are released into the environment. Even if they float away on accident, they will eventually come down, and marine life could mistake them for their next meal! Instead, try blowing bubbles! You could even use a stainless-steel straw to blow your bubbles, then use it to share a milkshake with your sweetheart!

Toast your date with a reusable aluminum cup: Aluminum cups are lightweight and portable, but reusable and easy to clean! Take a pair on your beach picnic to toast your date while the sun sets.

Make a date to collect trash: Take your date to a local beach or park and pick up debris together – picking up marine debris is a great way to show the Earth your love!

Journey of X

Back in the classroom, students participated in the “Circle of Viewpoints and Journey of X mural activities (Creative engagement activities, page 22) as part of DUML’s Program on Marine Debris. In these activities, each student thinks about the the lifespan of a piece of marine debris they collected, and how it arrived on our local beach. By brainstorming about where the marine debris came from, how it got to where they found it, and the journey it took to get there, students think about the interactions of people, places, and cultures, and how individual and local actions can affect people, places and environments all over the world.

Below are examples from students in Ms. Horvat’s fourth grade class at Morehead City Elementary School. These four students described the journey of a flip flop, a gatorade bottle, and cigarette butts that they found on our local beaches. Cigarette butts and single-use water and gatorade bottles are major finds during every marine debris cleanup here in Carteret County. Worldwide, a total of 1,863,838 cigarette butts and 1,578,834 plastic beverage bottles were found by cleanup volunteers in 2017 [1].

One student imagined that the flip flop was worn by someone in Hong Kong, China. And when that individual walked in the ocean, the flip flop got washed away by the waves and travelled across the oceans to Beaufort, North Carolina where it was picked up by one of her classmates and made into art.

Another student described the flip-flop starting its journey in a factory. After being putting in a box to be shipped to the shore store, a man bought the flip flops. He wore them to the beach one day and left them there for a kid to pick up!

The journey of a gatorade bottle was also described. When someone drank the “Caribbean sea blue color down the the last drop”, it was thrown into the trash. When the trash man came to the take the trash out, he accidentally dropped the gatorade bottle on the ground. The bottle rolled and rolled into it reached the sea and eventually washed onto the beach. After 10 years, the bottle was picked up by a girl 15x bigger than it was who cleaned it and put it in its rightful place, a beautiful art project.

One fourth grade student describes the journey of a cigarette coming to a place called America after being made in a factory. One day, a human picked it up and put it in his mouth when he was at a place with “blue and yellow Earth”, which he called “sand” and “water”. After the cigarette started shrinking to be three centimeters tall, the human threw it on the sand and left it there. The cigarette was in the sand for 32 years; humans walked by many times but never picked it up. One day a small human picked it up and put it in a blue container with tons of other trash. It was cleaned and put into an art project, which is where it is now, sitting on a shelf, being useful, and teaching others what the students have learned about marine debris.

[1] International Coastal Cleanup 2017 Report. Ocean Conservancy.

2017 Highlights

In 2017, Duke University Marine Lab launched its first community science research project focusing on marine debris. The year-long interdisciplinary program developed by DUML researchers, local teachers, and community members is intended for fourth and fifth grade classes in Carteret County. After learning about marine debris in their classrooms, students traveled to DUML to go out in the field and collect marine debris in the Rachel Carson Reserve. 

This fall we had 19 classes from Morehead City Elementary, White Oak Elementary, and Beaufort Elementary visit DUML to conduct marine debris cleanups (students at Tiller School and St. Egberts are scheduled for this spring). In just three months, we collected 1,802 POUNDS of marine debris. The most abundant item the students collected were cigarette butts with a total of 1,713. Students also collected a total of 638 plastic bags, 427 plastic bottles, 93 plastic straws, and 26 balloons. Some the most unique pieces of marine debris that were collected included a bike handle, a rug, light bulbs, a skateboard, and even a wedding band!

The collected marine debris were taken back to DUML to be weighed, cleaned, and sanitized. After picking the pieces of marine debris that were deemed “art-worthy”, the students took them back to their classrooms to make marine debris art mosaics and sculptures.

Thank you to all of the teachers who came to the vision workshop, piloted the program with their classes, and helped launch the marine debris program in their schools!