Entering the world of marine debris, I had one overarching question, “What positive twists can come from such a big global problem?” The headlines of my favorite newspapers and science magazines report the doom of our planet due to our massive accumulation of trash. Some suggest launching our trash into space. Others offer technology as an answer, admitting there is so much trash that it will take years to make an impact. Personally, I felt a bit lost trying to deal with the issue of marine debris.

My question was soon answered at NOAA’s Sixth International Marine Debris Conference (6IMDC). My mentor, Katy Smith, Water Quality Program Coordinator for the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and I attended the conference to present a poster about our most recent efforts to convey the importance of marine debris to a group of seventh graders in Glynn County, Ga., our local coastal community. We shared teaching techniques and talked about how we introduced students to our local partners, led cleanup efforts, and shared student-designed outreach materials to spread the word about the difference they were making in their community. We took a piece of the Georgia coast all the way to California and returned with inspiration from all over the globe.

Smith and Colangelo pose next to a giant straw at the 6IMDC.

From the moment we arrived at the conference, we knew we were surrounded by people who share our passion about marine debris. A giant blowup straw and water bottle, strategically displayed on the front lawn of the resort, were great conversation starters, and an even better selfie station (see photo). Representatives from 54 countries, including South Africa, Indonesia, Spain, and even Norway attended the international conference. Our first moments at the resort gave us a glimpse of what people all over the world are doing to address this global issue. We heard a talk delivered by a youth leader who led a plastic bag ban (Bye-Bye Plastic Bags) in Bali, Indonesia. As the days went on, our notebooks filled with notes on the latest research and the names of people who delivered amazing talks on innovative ways they’re addressing marine debris. To say I became a fan of those around me would be an understatement. I was truly blown away by all the efforts of people around the world who want to help prevent debris in their communities. We were all there for one universal reason, to find solutions to the issue of marine debris.

My biggest take-away from 6IMDC is that there is still hope that we can overcome the issue of marine debris. Trash accumulation is being addressed in many different ways by people from all around the world. Coastal Georgia is not alone as we pick up litter and teach students the importance of protecting our communities and the ocean; we are a part of a growing global network of people with a common goal. We will continue to make a difference by working with local and international communities. Each person is an important piece of the puzzle that, together, makes up the solution to the problem: change.