A Conversation with Annie Daly ’11

Annie Daly ’11, an environmental studies major in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and a student in the LMU Honors Program, visited the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an area of the northern Pacific Ocean where ocean debris, made up mostly of plastics, is concentrated. She traveled there with Project Kaisei, an organization that sends research vessels to the debris sites to study plastic refuse and trash and find ways to convert plastic ocean debris into fuel. Daly received a grant from the Honors Program to pursue her research. She was interviewed by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

When did you go to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
We left on Aug. 14, 2010, from the Bay Area and returned to San Diego on Sept. 3.

How long did it take you to sail there?
We were on the boat for about 25 days. When we were about 600 miles out, on about the third day of sailing, we started to see plastic and other trash.

Is the garbage collecting in one identifiable place?
No, it’s not like a floating garbage island. Some of the plastic is submerged and other bits are floating on the surface. It’s like having a really big swimming pool and dumping your trash in it — the trash is scattered, not clumped together in one place.

We were looking for “ghost nets,” which are discarded fishing gear, as the first sign of the patch. They are a huge problem. The first one we found was one that got stuck on our propeller, and the first mate had to dive and cut it off the propeller. That’s when we knew we were there.

Was there anything especially interesting about the trash?
What grows on it is interesting. There are gooseneck barnacles and little crabs that live on the discarded nets and plastic. The plastic has acquired its own eco-system. When we pulled the plastic up, we threw the creatures back into the water, but they can’t survive without the surface plastic to live on.

On one hand, you’ve had a very unusual research opportunity about an environmental issue that’s very important. But did it leave you depressed?
On the boat, I wasn’t depressed. But when we got to San Diego, where we had planned to discuss our work at a Tall Ships festival and show the plastic we had collected and where it came from, it hit me.

What are people doing to improve the situation?
Some groups organize coastal cleanups, others are involved in effecting public policy, and some are focused on prevention.

What are you doing to make a difference?
I had an art exhibit in September in the Thomas P. Kelly Jr. Student Art Gallery to raise awareness in the LMU community. It was made up of pieces of trash, paintings, photos and lots of information. I’d like to make that a traveling exhibit to take to elementary schools. Last spring, I went to an elementary school to talk about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The kids couldn’t believe it.

How can people learn more?
One way is to learn more from Project Kaisei and the Ocean Conservancy.

What do you wish you could say to people about the problem?
All of our choices really do make a difference. Beach cleanups and cleaning up your street to make sure trash doesn’t go down the storm drains really make a difference, because that trash goes to the ocean. We should ask ourselves, “Do I need to buy something that comes in a plastic bottle or bag?” We’re creating a material that doesn’t break down for far longer than any one person’s lifetime, and it has serious repercussions that we should be considering before producing millions and millions of tons of it.