What do you think of when you picture 220 pounds? For me, I definitely don’t picture a pile of garbage. But that’s exactly what I found in the salt marsh of Pamlico Sound! I spent my spring break doing field work for my research project studying how various factors affect the dispersal of marine debris in Pamlico Sound salt marshes. I am using PhD student Erin Voigt’s drone photographs to quantify how much large marine debris there is and using ArcGIS to compare the amount of debris at 8 sites to various factors.

The field work I did over spring break consisted of us picking up trash so I can ground truth my drone data. Basically, so I can test how well I identify debris in the photos and if the amount of debris I find in the photos accurately represents the actual amount there is. We picked up trash in four 10m x 10m areas at each site to test how accurately I am quantifying the debris. We also picked up trash outside of these areas just because we didn’t want to leave it! We did not include the debris picked up outside of the 10m x 10m areas in the analysis. When we had extra time due to bad weather, we quantified the debris. To do this, we would categorize items based on the material it was made of. For example, a plastic bottle goes in plastic, a metal can goes in metal. Then, we weighed the debris using a hanging scale (we would hang the bag or bucket from the scale). We quantified the 10m x 10m debris separately from the outside 10m x 10m area debris and quantified each site independently.

In total, we picked up 220 pounds (1400 pieces) of debris, not even covering the entire area of our 8 1km long sites! We found hundreds of plastic bottles, metal cans, plastic bags, many crab pots, balloons, and many other types of trash. It is overwhelming how much debris we found in such a small area, especially considering how isolated most of our sites are.

This project has taught me how important it is to be conscious of our waste and the need for debris to be picked up. Additionally, I created the methods for my project on my own, and Erin warned me that we would have to change things in the field because plans never work how you expect. She was right! We had to make some adjustments to my methods the first day in the field, which I was fine with. I learned how to be flexible and keep my mind open to suggestions from the undergraduate students who were helping me. This experience makes me look forward to a career where I get to do field work and work with people who are passionate about the same topics as me.