We’re hosting a series of Field Experts, a few rock stars in their chosen STEM fields, to take us along as they study the world.  We welcome Justine Ammendolia as she takes us through the study and care of the world we live in.

by Justine Ammendolia 

The summer of 2020 was supposed to be a time filled with travel, adventures and new experiences. As a biologist and plastic pollution researcher, I was scheduled to travel and spend months on a remote island in the Gulf of Alaska studying how microplastics move and transfer among seabirds. 

 I had waited years to pitch this project to the internationally renowned National Geographic Society. At the beginning of March, I received the grant money to carry out my dream; unfortunately, it coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that froze international flights and closed borders. COVID-19 had a rippling effect on my home in Toronto, Canada. The Government recommended that citizens stay indoors as much as possible and limit outdoor daily physical activity to prevent the spread. 

I was grounded in Toronto with no foreseeable travel in the future. As a marine biologist, what was I to do?  

Even though I grew up in Toronto, I have lived outside of the city for more than 10 years and only recently moved back. I knew that navigating the urban landscape with my specialized scientific training would be tricky; in particular, creating a new research project that did not involve seabirds, islands or an ocean. 

On my daily walks during the early stages of the pandemic, I started to closely observe the debris on sidewalks. There was expected consumer debris like cigarette butts, plastic bottles and food wrappers, but there was also something unexpected: single-use medical plastics like face masks, disposable gloves and disinfectant wipes. These items are considered personal protection equipment (PPE), which are traditionally used to protect healthcare professionals and workers against disease and infection. However, with the rapid spread of COVID-19, these items had now become an essential staple of the general public worldwide. 

Pre-COVID, I knew that single-use plastics were a threat to the environment; however, the pandemic was now adding another layer of pollution that, given the global scale of the virus, was worth my attention due to its environmental impact. Toronto is home to two major river systems and Lake Ontario, which fosters rich biodiversity and wildlife. If PPE debris was becoming a staple of the city landscape, I was naturally concerned about its effects upon local bodies of water. Consequently, my mundane walks sparked a lightbulb moment! I would pursue my personal interest in plastic pollution by developing and running a monitoring program aimed to document pandemic-related debris. 

I did not carry out this important work alone; my partner Jacquelyn Saturno (also a plastic pollution researcher) was my collaborator. We co-designed the field protocols and hit the streets around our home, armed with a citizen science mobile application ready to record the location, PPE types and quantities along our routes.  

Since late May, we have been going out on a weekly basis to do fieldwork. Our field sites include grocery store parking lots, our local community and the busy streets of downtown Toronto--not exactly where you think you would find biologists!  

In the first four weeks of our surveys, Jacquelyn and I picked up over 1300 debris items, an alarming amount of PPE for a very small area of one Canadian city. We are mapping out PPE debris to best determine how to reduce this type of pollution. Not bad for a couple going out for daily walks! 

The summer of 2020 has brought some of the biggest curveballs in my career that have required constant adaptation. I went from planning an Alaskan field expedition to developing a pandemic-related debris-monitoring program that brought unexpected new experiences and local adventures. It is important to note that good science does not always happen in a laboratory. Overall, this pandemic allowed me to become more globally conscious while conducting citizen science in my own backyard.  

Justine Ammendolia is a marine biologist, plastic pollution researcher and science communicator based in Toronto. In 2014, she was awarded the National Geographic Young Explorer Grant to travel to Eastern Greenland to research Arctic seabirds and lived off-grid for 6 weeks. During this time, Justine fostered a deep passion for protecting the corners of our planet and their unique ecosystems, particularly those in our Northern environments. In addition to research, she is also passionate about sharing her knowledge and experiences in STEM with younger audiences and advocates for more inclusion and equity as a *** scientist. Justine regularly works with the National Geographic Society. You can follow her on Instagram here or on Twitter here