When she’s not working toward her degree in marine biology or completing research on the dangers of plastic to marine life, University of North Carolina Wilmington senior Sam Athey is driving a movement to keep plastic out of the ocean.
“I’ve never seen anyone take on a project with such force as this one,” said Bonnie Monteleone, executive director of Plastic Ocean Project, a national non-profit aimed at reducing marine plastic.
Athey supports Plastic Ocean Project’s initiative in several ways — she organizes weekly beach sweeps at Wrightsville Beach and she is helping local restaurants get certified as ocean-friendly, meaning they only serve plastic straws on request.
She is also encouraging fellow students to join the cause. Last fall, she and four friends founded the first student chapter of Plastic Ocean Project in the country. Already, the club is one of the most active out of the 200 student groups at UNCW, Monteleone said. In just a few months it has swelled to more than 80 members from all academic departments.
“I think we even have a French major,” Athey said.
Learning about the harmful effects of plastic through classwork and research spurred Athey’s involvement in Plastic Ocean Project, but a thorough understanding of the problem isn’t necessary to being a part of the solution, she emphasized.
“It’s important for even the non biology majors to understand that anyone can make a difference,” she said. “Whether you know a lot about the ocean or you don’t, we all have a huge impact on it.”
While Athey is incredibly enthusiastic about the Plastic Ocean Project mission, it is her ability to inspire others to get involved that is so valuable to the cause, Monteleone said.
“I’ve been doing this for eight years, and watching Sam come up with ideas about how we can continuously engage science students and art students and film studies students, I’ve been blown away,” she said.
The dangers of plastic in the ocean can be a dark subject matter, Monteleone said, and Athey emphasizes the fun, social aspect of events like beach cleanups.
“They’re just out there on the beach enjoying the company of like-minded folk and educating others,” Monteleone said. “That’s something I haven’t had a lot of time for, is that fun aspect and bringing the community together.”
Another initiative Athey started with UNCW Plastic Ocean Project was to get local restaurants certified as ocean-friendly, meaning they only serve plastic straws on request. So far eight restaurants have taken the pledge and she hopes more will follow.
Plastic straws are the seventh most common piece of litter found on beaches around the world, Athey said, and the breakdown of plastic can be extremely harmful to marine life. Ceviche’s owner Hunter Tiblier, who took the pledge several months ago, said straw-less beverages don’t appear to bother his patrons.
“We used to buy two or three packs of straws a day but since we started the [ocean-friendly] program, I haven’t bought straws in months, because no one’s really asking for them,” he said. “It saves us money and saves us ocean.”
Athey is also making a difference through her research on the dangers of ingesting plastic. Not only is plastic itself harmful to animals’ digestive systems, but Athey’s research shows plastic absorbs pollutants from the ocean and then leaches them into the bloodstream of marine life that ingest the plastic.
As her research culminates this semester she will test tissue samples from stranded turtles for evidence of pollutants leached from ingested plastic.
Though she is a marine biology major, her research is with chemistry department chair Dr. Pamela Seaton, which, Monteleone pointed out, “just proves how smart she is.”
Part of Athey’s research required operating a complicated chemistry instrument that she had never used before. It was a hurdle she quickly overcame — by reading the entire manual.
“Today, she knows how to run that instrument better than most faculty,” Monteleone said. “It’s such an incredible statement to her tenacity.”
Although Athey is graduating in May to ideally continue sea turtle research in a Duke University master’s program, she leaves behind a powerful contingent of younger people she inspired to carry on the Plastic Ocean Project cause.
“I’m just so proud of my group, they are so passionate,” she said.
Athey helped ensure the initiative would be continued by not only underclassmen, but also by future generations. Last semester, she and other UNCW students visited local schools and read the children books about plastic marine debris and recycling.
“These are really important messages that we need to teach people really young, and hope they carry it on the rest of their life,” Monteleone said, adding the enthusiasm Athey and her friends have injected into the Plastic Ocean Project mission has renewed her faith that they can have a lasting impact, not only at Wrightsville Beach but around the world.
“It has inspired me to believe that we can get on the front end of this,” she said. “We’re going to need a small army, but I think we’ve already started one here at UNCW.”