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garbage on the beach
Kanapou Beach, Kahoʻolawe. (Photo credit: HDAR)

Plastic waste poses a triple threat to living organisms and the environment: the physical material itself, the chemicals associated with it, and disease causing microorganisms that hitchhike on it. A specialist faculty with the University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program (Hawaiʻi Sea Grant), Mary J. Donohue, was selected by the National Academies of Sciences to serve on the Committee on United States Contributions to Global Ocean Plastic Waste. Donohue was one of only nine experts appointed nationwide to serve on the prestigious committee.

woman smiling
Mary Donohue

The committee is undertaking an 18-month study to assess and document the magnitude of the problem. It will evaluate the different types and prevalence of the debris; assess the amount that is imported to and exported from the U.S.; determine the value of a national marine debris tracking and monitoring system; and recommend potential ways to substantially reduce the plastic waste that is generated.

The longevity of plastic waste and its fragmentation results in impacts on multiple scales, from whales entangled in derelict fishing gear to tissue and cellular interactions with the tiniest nanoplastics.

Donohue has been studying the devastating impacts of plastic pollution on marine mammals and coral reefs for more than 20 years. She began her research career on remote oceanic islands in Alaska where she observed firsthand the problem of marine debris and derelict fishing gear on both mammals and birds. This experience led her to move to Hawaiʻi to serve as chief scientist on the first systematic at-sea expeditions to document, study and remove marine debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

More recently, Donohue has focused on activities toward achieving sustainable communities through understanding and mitigating pollution in water resources. In addition to her role at Hawaiʻi Sea Grant, she serves as affiliate graduate faculty at Oregon State University.

The committee is scheduled to meet online on October 26, 28 and 30. While some sessions are open to committee members only, the October 28 meeting will include a public session that is scheduled to be held 5 –8:30 a.m. Hawaiʻi Standard Time. During this meeting, representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Congressional staff and stakeholders will discuss their expectations for the study followed by a question and answer session with the panelists and committee members.

For more information and to register, visit the United States Contributions to Global Ocean Plastic Waste, Meeting 1.

–By Cindy Knapman

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