Mapping Plastic from Suburb to Sea

Latest update January 17, 2019 Started on January 1, 2010

How does plastic waste move from Elk Grove, a suburban community of 170,000 people near Sacramento, into the Sacramento River Delta?

How can we reduce the amount of plastic flowing into our oceans?

January 1, 2010
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In The Field

Students are both consuming and producing data by reading text, viewing films, and listening to audio reports about plastics and microplastics as well as beginning data collection.

Students have started with Newsela for text that's accessible to them at a Lexile (text complexity level) that's appropriate for them. If you haven't seen this platform, it's pretty amazing. Newsela takes stories from dozens of respected news partners and rewrites them at 5-different Lexiles to allow students of different ages and reading ability to access them. That's important when you've got students in a class reading below, at, and above grade level.

We’re also consuming videos from a variety of sources. I’m able to bring them into Edpuzzle to enhance them and transform a passive viewing experience into an interactive lesson. Check out how a video from National Geographic is made interactive with the help of Edpuzzle by clicking here

Listening comprehension is something us adults take for granted. But when you’re 10 or 11 it’s something that has to explicitly be taught and practiced. To help with that we’re using Listenwise. This organization takes Public Radio stories and brings them into a platform where the transcript can be displayed and questions can be added for students to ponder before, during, and after listening.

We’re beginning to produce data as well.

We finally have our survey dialed in and ready to share widely. If YOU want to help collect data, use to begin surveying locations and adding to our map!

Want to see a map app that updates every minute? Go to

We’ve surveyed storm sewers around our campus and found “hot spots” where trash clusters. We set up erosion control netting around one of these locations. The pattern so far has been to find more trash in planters with bushes as compared to grassy areas. One thing we predict is grassy areas are more open which might mean wind can blow trash through the area. Another thought is that grassy areas are mowed more frequently, so that might account for part of the trash being removed. Also, grassy areas are more frequently traveled by people which means more people are likely to see trash and perhaps pick it up. We’ve learned that grassy areas on our campus are often bounded by concrete, and we’ve observed these areas routinely cleaned by custodial staff using...a leaf blower. Some students have hypothesized that perhaps the leaf blower is responsible for moving some trash from grassy areas into planters with bushes.

Either way, students are collecting data and thinking about the patterns that are starting to emerge.

Just like Explorers!

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Field Testing Survey123 at school!

(And we'd love it if you could help field test it, too. See details below!)

To start, we walked through what Survey 123 is: a tool that populates a map with geolocated data points. (Students felt pretty cool saying "geolocation.")

Next, we went out onto our campus and found a storm sewer inlet, gathered trash, and recorded what we found using the app. You can see the map by clicking

Here's a screen record of how the app looks using a QR code reader. After a little troubleshooting, I realized the QR code reader app I was using is what allowed the banner ads at the bottom of the screen. My second try using Google Lens (It's the small blue dot in the red square next to the microphone in the Google App on my iPhone.) scans the QR code and has no banner ads.

Overall, the app was well-received by students. They're not afraid of the tech. We'll venture out to our park and greenbelt next week to further test the app and troubleshoot it.

Want to help us field test the survey where you live?

Open it up in using a smartphone or device with cellular or data service and try it out. Click here or copy/paste the URL into a browser, or scan the QR code in this post.

We would love your feedback as we troubleshoot data collection. Do the directions make sense? Was the survey easy to follow? Are missing something? We'd love to hear from you. Tweet your ideas to us at @Curiosity_Films

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Today was a good day. I got to work with a team of students practicing research, reading, and summarizing skills.

That's not easy when your 10 years old...or even 48.

Devin, Isaac, and Abby had a question about marine plastics: "Does plastic change the color or texture of the ocean water?"

They generated keywords and search phrases, went out to the web, and found an article they thought might help answer this.

Here is there summary of knowledge. They learned that sometimes, finding answers to questions is not that easy.

Summary of findings

Today we found an article on why the ocean is different colors.

According to the article from the website How Stuff Works, NASA oceanographer Gene Carl Feldman states that water is colorless, but the color of the ocean changes “based on depth, what's in it and what's below it."

When sunlight hits the ocean blue light scatters because the wavelengths are shorter. If white rocks are at the bottom of the water the water appears light blue. The deeper the water goes the less the light reflects off the bottom of the ocean, so the color is darker.

The ocean is rarely clear because blue light waves are shorter and scatter when it hits the water's surface.

Phytoplankton can change the color of ocean water making it green, yellow, red, or even brown.

The article states that “Oceans with a high concentrations of phytoplankton can appear blue-green to green, depending on the density.” When oceans become polluted with runoff, phytoplankton populations can grow rapidly. When this happens there are too many of them and not enough oxygen to support them. They die, fall to the bottom of the ocean, decompose, and a “dead zone” is created.

Phytoplankton are important because they feed zooplankton which feed fish which feed other fish and eventually feed us. Also, they create 50% of the oxygen we breathe.

We don’t know yet if plastic changes the color of the ocean. We imagine if you swam through bags or marine plastic it would probably feel different because plastic is in your way and it would probably get stuck onto you. We’re not as different from animals as we think. We think animals might feel the same way.**

I love being a teacher when I get to work with kids who think like this! More updates to come!


Guess what showed up for our expedition?

A new Trident ROV from Remote ROV! Maiden voyage took place at 15:57 PST on December 29, 2018. All systems functioned flawlessly!

My 5th-grade daughter, Georgia, took the helm and piloted the Trident around our swimming pool with little difficulty. Keeping a steady hand on controls for filming will, however, take a bit more practice.

Students will begin learning how to pilot the Trident at Sunshine Swim Center in Elk Grove, California. The owner of the private pool has agreed to let us her facility to steady our hand and steel our nerve to deploy the Trident in the Sacramento River.

What to name our drone? Hmmm...I'm anticipating students will have some fun names to propose!

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December 29 I conducted an aerial transect of Franklin Creek (Shed B Channel on the map from above). See the video showing the full length of the creek in this post.

I began the flight near Cosumnes Oaks High School and was shocked by the amount of plastic waste in the reeds and grass. This is a high-traffic area for students entering and exiting campus. It will be interesting to conduct an audit of the volume and types of trash we find there.

Flying along the channel, I noticed concrete drainage points feeding water (and possibly plastic waste) into the channel. It will be interesting to see if students identify these in the video and suggest going to these locations to audit waste we find. I'm confident at least a few students will make this realization and suggest such action. This is an inquisitive group of 5th graders I'm working with this year.

It has been a BUSY couple of weeks preparing for our January 10 launch of our Planetary Stewards Grant.

Planning instruction has been at the top of my to-do list. I keep mining videos which I'm trying to enhance with Edpuzzle to make viewing them interactive. I keep finding more and more websites and news stories from National Geographic's Asset Library as well as reading and listening resources from online tools like Newsela or Listenwise.

Planning instruction as a teacher has taken an interesting twist over the past 22 years: When I first began teaching, it was pre-internet and hard to find resources to bring into class with the one computer we had. Now, I'm drowning in resources which means I have to exercise discipline and focus to winnow out the best resources to bring into class.

As a Geo-Inquiry Project, students will pursue their questions as well which means I have to work double-time to make sure we have procedures and protocols in place for how we explore answers to the questions students have.

Teaching today isn't a 7-step lesson plan. Every question or topic feels like a moonshot.

More on planning of instruction later.

Let's get visual.

I've spent time talking with Charlie Fitzpatrick at Esri to prepare a map we can use with students and Explorers for our fieldwork. Currently, we're using this map showing main drainage channels (shown in orange), locations we feel would be appropriate to launch a GPS enhanced bottle to track movement of plastic trash through the Sacramento River (blue numbered points), as well as bridges from which we can deploy a manta net to collect plastics. I'm working with Charlie to sort out the watersheds adjacent to the Sacramento River that are downstream from us. Sometimes too much data is...too much.

That said, if we can eliminate all the watersheds that are not in our area of field work, it makes the map a LOT easier to read. I can predict students would be distracted by the additional "purple lines" that appear with the toggling on of the USGS Watersheds layer.

Near the manta net locations we will also collect fish and conduct visual inspections for plastic near the shoreline and using our new Trident ROV from Open ROV. More on that in an additional post.

I'll keep posting on the teacher-end of this expedition. Soon, I hope to have some student posts included.

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To make this more than a one-and-done activity, we are using the **National Geographic Geo-Inquiry Process.

Students will ask geographic questions, collect data, and then visualize it to tell a story that drives an action.

Questions we want to answer are many:

  1. Where is plastic entering the Sacramento River?
  2. How does plastic move through the river?
  3. Is plastic entering freshwater food webs?
  4. Where do we find plastic waste accumulating in our community?

As a classroom teacher, I know I'll need to craft learning experiences for students to learn about plastics, solid waste management, and watersheds. I'll draw from Next Generation Science Standards as well as Common Core reading and writing standards as well.

We'll also rely on a team of National Geographic Explorers as experts and thought partners.

Katlin Bowman is an expert in microplastic toxicology. Joe Cutler is an ichthyologist who can help us understand how fish are impacted by pollution. Jenna Jambeck is a solid waste expert we will turn to for expert information on how plastics enter oceans. Shah Selbe is our conservation technology engineer who will prototype and build the final open source bottle float to track plastic waste. Xaquin Gonzalez Veira will help us visualize our data and tell our story.

As of December 2018, we are aiming for 6-days in the field with Explorers. We will use a manta net to drop over the sides of bridges like the Paintersville Bridge shown in the video. We'll also collect water samples which Katlin Bowman will take back to her lab to look for microfibers.

Near the bridges, we'll collect fish with Joe Cutler. Gut will be analyzed back in Katlin's lab for microplastics and mercury.

While gathering fish and plastics and water samples, we'll have students explore for plastic waste using one of David Lang's Trident ROVs.

Yet another crew will use Survey 123 and smartphones to inventory plastic waste we find along the banks of the Sacramento River.

All of this work will be captured by students with film cameras and using our two aerial film drones.


Explorers Festival 2018

The idea for this Planetary Stewards Grant started while viewing a presentation from the Max Planck Institute on animated bird migration maps.

What if we could create an animated map of where plastic waste goes?

A text to friend and fellow Explorer Shah Selbe lead to a brainstorming session in the snack bar at National Geographic Headquarters.

What if we use a single use plastic bottle to house a GPS sensor and camera that we could float down the Sacramento River to track the movement of plastic waste? This was the idea that sparked this exploration.

Expedition Background

In 2010 my students and I became fascinated with trash.

It started with a project on how to properly recycle batteries. Students had learned that in California less than 1% of non-automotive batteries were recycled in contrast with the high rate (<90%) of automotive battery recycling.

Why were ubiquitous household batteries not being recycled? Students learned it was largely due to not understanding how to properly dispose of batteries and a relative scarcity of battery drop-off locations.

Students identified battery drop off locations only to realize they were few in number, concentrated in commercial zones, and not clearly identified.

A solution presented itself.

Our school district covers 320 square miles of Sacramento County in California. We have 42 elementary, 9 middle, and 9 high schools widely distributed a county of about 1.5 million people.

Student wondered, "What if we placed battery collection stations at each of our schools?"

We pitched the idea to our city's Integrated Waste Department and learned collection stations in schools posed a risk: batteries that are partially charged could combust when mixed together.

But we were offered an opportunity: what if we produced a film showcasing our city's then soon-to-be-opened Special Waste Collection Center?

This facility would accept batteries as well as dozens of other types of household hazardous waste. You can see the completed film by clicking here

Since that first project, each year I ask my students to consider: "Where does our green waste, trash, recyclables, and household hazardous waste go?"


James, this is SO cool. I can't wait to follow along

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