Environmental engineer and National Geographic Explorer Jenna Jambeck made a startling research discovery in 2015: About 8.8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. That's why she’s working with governments and the public to come up with solutions for the plastic-waste crisis.
But Jambeck has another important constituency: her two sons. We chatted about how she balances her passion for reducing plastic waste with being a busy mom trying to raise a family of waste warriors.
NAT GEO FAMILY: How do you talk to your kids about plastic pollution?
JENNA JAMBECK: My kids have been to a few of my talks, and they understand the issue pretty well. I’m an action type of person, so when we as a family talk about problems in the world, we talk about what we can do to solve them. I don’t think they get overwhelmed and sad about it because that’s not the way that I approach it—I try to model optimism for them.
If I was trying to explain the issue to kids, I might say that that 8.8 million tons figure equates to about a dump truck of plastic poured into the ocean every minute. We find it everywhere we look in the ocean, and it hurts animals like dolphins, sea turtles, and coral. It’s a big problem—but we can do so much to help.
NGF: How does your family avoid plastic?
JAMBECK: We’re certainly not perfect, and I want other parents to be OK with that too. Even though this is what I research, we can’t do everything. I travel a lot, we’re busy, and my kids just really love those store-bought peanut butter crackers.
But we do what we can. We don’t use plastic water bottles; instead, everyone in the family has their own bottle. And we don’t use plastic bags. We’ve even left the store carrying all of our items in our arms on days I’ve forgotten our reusable bags. (The kids loved that.) When we pack the lunches, we use reusable lunch bags, stainless steel containers, and a reusable container for chips. And now, we’re all trying out solid shampoo and conditioner, which is actually kind of fun.
NGF: Are any plastic items totally banned in your house?
NGF: If you could ask other families to make one change related to plastic, what would it be?
JAMBECK: I’d say to pick just one habit they can stick with. Water bottles could be a good place to start because—at least in the United States—most people have access to clean water, and it’s easy for family members to remind each other to use the bottles.
But people shouldn’t pressure themselves to change everything all at once. That’s how you get overwhelmed as an already-busy parent, and then you check out.
NGF: Have you ever taken your kids to see a landfill?
JAMBECK: My husband and I met and fell in love at a landfill in Florida where we were both doing research on how things decompose, so we made a family pilgrimage back to that spot. My oldest son thought it was a little stinky, but when we came across some interesting trash, I was impressed that my kids thought it was cool rather than gross.
NGF: Do you have any tips for making plastic reduction fun?
JAMBECK: My youngest is really interested in using technology right now, so if we're collecting litter, we give him the phone to document our work. He’s in charge of logging the trash we find using the Marine Debris Tracker app.
Travel can also be a great way to expand kids’ horizons and help them understand the issue on a global scale. It’s been really powerful to take my kids along with me on some trips to places like Thailand and Mexico so they can see how other countries handle their trash. If you aren’t able to travel, you can still explore places that are different than the United States with your kids through videos and movies. It can help kids understand that this is a problem everywhere, for everyone to help solve.
NGF: What do you say to give your kids hope for the future?
JAMBECK: Kids can make a difference! They can form a club to make changes at their school or in their community. I also think my kids see that I’m really passionate about what I do, and it shows them that you can make a difference in the world when you follow what matters to you—whatever it is.
NGF: Have your kids ever done their own thing around plastic reduction that made you proud?
JAMBECK: My oldest had a school project where he had to come up with something that would make a difference, and he had an idea to create a remote-controlled vacuum that would suck up plastic from the ocean floor. He loves robotics, and it was really sweet that he incorporated my work into his project.
My youngest will notice the trash in the environment, and he’ll point it out to me and want to pick it up. We pick up what we can and just try to do our best!
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Jenna Jambeck’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of ocean Explorers.