NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

Do you know where your trash ends up?

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By Caitlyn Zimmerman, Guest blogger

Can you picture a place untouched by man? I picture a place with pristine beaches and bright blue water lapping at the shore.  I believed Midway Atoll, a tiny island that is part of the Paphānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, to be one of those places.

I was fortunate enough to get the chance to go to Midway as part of a conservation biology course offered at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. I was working towards my master’s in coastal environmental management and knew I would never get this opportunity again.

Midway is truly inspiring—a special place that I feel honored to have experienced. But, there are aspects of Midway that chill me to the core. Like me, when most people think of Midway, they think of an island in the middle of the ocean untouched by man, but that is far from true.

Albatross nest on the sand inches away from marine debris (to the right).
Photo Credit: Danielle Crain

Marine debris litters the beach and stacks high on the island’s unused airplane hangar. New debris washes up daily, ranging in form from tennis ball sized fishing floats up to boats. Lighters and bottle caps litter the area around the albatross nests – a clear sign the birds mistakenly brought plastic back to feed their young. For a place so special and distant from civilization, Midway is struggling to keep up with all the debris.

The people working on the island told us stories of birds dying from all the plastic they ate, of chicks never reaching adulthood because parents didn’t realize the bright bits of plastic were not fish, of seals swimming hopelessly tangled in fishing line, of debris piling so high they can’t possibly clean it all up.

While on the island, my class and I helped to clean up some of Midway. We hauled away three truckloads of marine debris within only a mile and a half of beach. We found glass bottles, laundry baskets, more lighters than we could count, fishing nets – one so large it took five of us to pull out from under the sand – shoes, and countless other items that you never would have guessed would end up on a beach in the middle of the Pacific.

My experience at Midway showed me that even the most remote location can be affected by humans.  I think about Midway every day. It changed my life, and it taught me to never take lightly what I throw away because it might end up in some of the last pristine places on earth.

Editor’s note: Caitlyn Zimmerman holds a master’s in coastal environmental management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment with a focus in science communication. She is currently an Outreach Specialist at NOAA’s Coastal Services Center. For more information, contact Caitlyn at

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

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