May 13th, 2024 | By Oriana Smy

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

Astrid Delorme, Marie Curie Postdoc Fellow and Early Career Ocean Professional (ECOP)

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

There are some exciting things happening with the UN Ocean Decade lately, particularly surrounding the Ocean Decade Challenge #1: Understand and Beat Marine Pollution. The UN Ocean Decade Conference concluded last month in Barcelona, Spain with over 1,500 participants attending in-person and thousands logging in virtually. 

One of the key priorities discussed at the conference was to "better understand the global distribution and human health and ecosystem impacts of marine pollution across the land-sea continuum, including the identification of priority pollutants and consideration of emerging and unregulated pollutants."

Peripherally to the Ocean Decade Conference and within the theme of this challenge, the fourth round of negotiations on the Global Plastics Treaty also took place in April in Canada’s capital of Ottawa, Ontario. Additionally, the 2024 Earth Day theme was Planet vs. Plastics to draw attention to the surmounting issue of plastic pollution.

Considering these milestone events and the salient topic of plastics, we wanted to highlight the great work happening in our region surrounding marine plastic pollution, particularly the people behind the Ocean Decade projects that are tackling this issue.

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

PlaSTic On beaches: 3D-distRibution and weathering (also known as “STORAGE”) is a UN Ocean Decade endorsed project under the ECOP (Early Career Ocean Professional) Programme. This research project suggests a novel approach to better understand the fate (transformation and transportation) of marine plastic debris through studying storage capacity and capture and release mechanisms of plastic debris on beaches, by field-surveys of surface and buried debris to study the weathering and settlement patterns of this material.

Driving the STORAGE project is Astrid Delorme, Marie Curie Postdoc Fellow and Early Career Ocean Professional (ECOP). Astrid brings a global perspective to the local level to better understand this problem of marine plastic pollution through a chemical lens by analyzing settlement patterns in coastal and nearshore ecosystems. 

Astrid grew up both in France and Sweden and studied chemistry at the University of Nottingham in the UK, which helped shape her focus towards global perspectives. She quickly became interested in the environmental field with a curiosity to contribute science for environmental good. “I’ve always been interested in science, and chemistry more specifically, and wanted to find a way that I could also work to better the natural world.”

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

She began her PhD program called “Green & Sustainable Chemistry” focussing on broader reaches involving environmental sustainable projects. This program gave her the flexibility to do an internship at the UN Environment Programme at their headquarters in Kenya, where she worked on a project focussing on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Pacific. Her aim was to find ways to improve communications of climate hazards resulting from climate change. 

During her time in Kenya, Astrid saw an astonishing amount of plastic pollution because the waste management infrastructure was not set up to support the amount of plastics they receive – unfortunately, a common reality all around the world. “There was so much plastic, I could smell it.”

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

After her time in Kenya, she went back to France where she was working on multi-layered food packaging that is made up of multiple layers of plastics that have different properties. “At the moment there’s no way to recycle these kinds of plastics, and we have so many of them out in the world today, so it’s a really big waste.” 

It was Astrid’s job to try and chemically separate the layers so they could be recycled individually. This project allowed her to see the problem of plastic pollution from a production, use, and waste management point of view. “I always wanted to be involved in the environment sector to try to help find a solution to the plastic pollution problem.”

Being a chemist, Astrid spends a lot of time in the lab, which means a lot of time spent indoors. “I like being in the lab and making things, but I was missing working outside.”

After this project in France she then went on to do another postdoc to work on bio-based and biodegradable plastics. “When I started talking about doing a project on plastics, I wanted to work on a project that could help answer the question: Where does the plastic end up?” 

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

This is where she developed STORAGE in collaboration with the Institut Français de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la MER (IFREMER), Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research (CMDR), and The Ocean Cleanup

So, what is the missing plastic and where is it? I asked.

“There is a predicted amount of plastic that originates on land and enters the ocean, and then there is data from field surveys that aims to ground-truth how much is found in the ocean and on shore to understand how much total plastic is actually in the ocean and in coastal areas.”

Astrid informs me that there are “sinks” where a lot of plastic sinks to the bottom of the sea, and that coastal environments have also been known to store a lot of plastics. “Some models predict that two-thirds of plastics are found here.”

Global plastic models estimate that two-thirds of plastic mass released into the ocean since the 1950s accumulates in coastal areas. Recent research is helping to better elucidate this mystery fate of missing plastics.

Even though research is being conducted globally to better understand plastics at all stages of the material’s life cycle – from production, to use, to end-of-life – we still don’t fully understand that process and the extent of the harms it can cause at each stage. Some questions Astrid began wondering was: what happens to the plastic in these sinks? How long does it stay when it leaks into the marine environment? Does it get buried? Does it degrade, and at what rate?

It was these questions that brought Astrid to her current placement at the Center for Marine Debris Research in Honolulu, Oahu, in Hawai’i, where she is just wrapping up her field season with STORAGE. “Hawai’i is unfortunately a very good place to study this because it faces the North Pacific Garbage Patch.”

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

Astrid wanted to study the role of coastal storage for plastics, and her team of dedicated volunteers helped make this possible. Her project worked with local volunteers to dig sixty-by-sixty centimeter wide by one meter deep holes in the sand to determine settlement patterns at varying depth of the beach. “We were seeing a lot of plastic at depth, which is something we were really interested in tracking.” 

Most of the plastics that were discovered in the holes were very small and brittle due to exposure to the elements that break them up even further and carry them back out to sea as smaller micro- and nano-plastic particles, making them very difficult to clean up.  “It’s depressing to see the amount of plastics that are out there, but it’s very motivating to see that people’s perspectives on plastics are changing, because I think that’s a driving factor to minimize plastic pollution.”

A majority of the plastic they were finding in these holes were buried. “This shows that there is a significant amount of plastics that we’re not accounting for in the global mass of plastic in the coastal environment by just looking at the surface.”

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

After the plastic is collected from the holes, the plastic particles are brought back to the lab at the Center for Marine Debris Research at Hawaii Pacific University. Here, Astrid does a chemical analysis to determine the polymer type – polypropylene, polystyrene, or polyethylene are the primary polymers – and measures the size and classifies them as a line, a fragment, a pellet, or foam.  “I don’t know if it used to be a bucket or a plastic bag. It’s impossible to know because they’re so small and so brittle.”

Astrid aims to use this data to find global solutions. “Raising awareness for the general public already exists, but raising awareness for policy makers and industry is difficult because they’re often so far away from what’s happening on the ground.”

Astrid is hoping to compare the STORAGE data with other organizations like The Ocean Cleanup, that is removing marine debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to determine what’s being found in the Pacific gyre and try to share their data and help connect some dots that can determine transportation and settlement patterns. 

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

As Astrid wraps up her field-survey season she gets ready to depart for the Netherlands where she will continue to analyze the data with The Ocean Cleanup. 

When asked what keeps her hopeful in this sometimes depressing line of work, she responded: 

“People are so inspiring and motivating in this field, and I’m so encouraged by the people working on marine plastics. It drives me to find the right networks and collaborations to help find the solutions to this problem.” 

People of the Ocean Decade: Astrid Delorme

She adds a final key take-away from her time in Hawai'i:

"There is the need for heightened attention on Indigenous worldviews on plastic pollution in the Pacific region (or Moananuiakea, Te Moana nui), and I look forward to continuing this dialogue of plastic pollution as waste colonialism through co-developed research with Indigenous Leadership."

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 101061749. STORAGE is endorsed as “No 93.2. PlaSTic On beaches: 3D-distRibution and weathering” as part of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030, and is attached to the Ocean Decade Programme “15. Early Career Ocean Professionals (ECOPs)”.

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