UNCW Plastic Ocean Project works to blend art with activism in their goal for a cleaner ocean

Kiley Woods, Staff Writer

The ocean needs our help. For decades the health of the ocean has been in a rapid state of decline. From the development of plastics to global warming, the ocean and all marine life is begging for a lifeline.

Several student organizations, including the Plastic Ocean Project, have programs that are driven by a passion for protecting the environment. Sustainability and environmental protection are two themes that are popular on UNCW’s campus. The Plastic Ocean Project is a student-run community outreach program that works to clean up beaches and shorelines along the Cape Fear River, help maintain the ocean and educate the community about plastic usage and disposal. Aptly named Sam Shores is the president of the UNCW organization and is in his final year studying marine biology. Shores discussed the club’s contributions to Wilmington and their goals regarding ocean conservation.

The health of the ocean, rising sea levels and how climate change affects marine life are all major issues impacting North Carolina. Inaction is causing these problems to persist. For six years, oceans have been hotter than they’ve ever been before. Warming sea temperatures will cause intense weather patterns, threaten global food security and disrupt marine biodiversity.

Plastic Ocean Project. (Plastic Ocean Project)

“The ocean is the source of life on our planet,” said Shores. “Without a healthy ocean, we cannot sustain a healthy planet. I believe that water is one of the foundational aspects that connects everyone and everything.”

The group is most known for their beach cleanups each semester. In fall of 2021, they collected over 800 pounds of waste from Wrightsville Beach and the surrounding beaches. Between fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, POP collected 4,122.2 pounds of waste. They also plant one tree for every 25 pounds of trash collected. The group’s efforts align with their passion to maintain the ocean and promote an environmentally friendly mission.

However, the project’s outreach does not stop at beach clean ups. They also support and collaborate with local businesses. “I want to really strive to energize more students and local businesses through sustainability with cleanups, events and local markets,” said Shores. Some of the businesses the Plastic Ocean Project works with include PetSmart Wilmington, Tidal Creek Food Co-Op and Adapt Kitchen and Juice Bar. Through collaborating with local businesses, the project looks to expand its network of impact and work towards a cleaner ocean by raising money and spreading their values and knowledge throughout the community.

Plastic Ocean Project is driven by creativity and collaboration. They recently constructed a sculpture of a wave made from plastic pieces and plastic bottle caps collected by the club over the span of multiple years. The sculpture will be at their 6th annual art gala. Art strengthens their mission by supplying a visual representation of the group’s mission and connecting lines between science, art and activism. At the beginning of the pandemic, they had time to reorganize and restructure their goals around engaging the community. This allowed the club to add an art team whose focus is the future artistic goals of the organization. “It would be amazing if we could continue to utilize art as a means of communication and outreach through creative expression,” said Shores. The Plastic Ocean project is in the process of making a documentary film about the work they do which features the environmental impact. Art, photography and film are used to create a visual representation of the ocean’s health and the dire need to approach the issue in a different way and with new ideas.

People living in low-income communities are more likely to be affected by climate change due to increased levels of exposure and vulnerability. Climate change will increase the existing separation between those who have resources and those who do not. Diversifying the roles of the project’s executive board and committee leaders created more room for leadership and new ideas in relation to protection and preservation.

Sam Shore, President of the Plastic Ocean Project, goes diving. (Plastic Ocean Project)

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Plastic Ocean Project needed to change its communication platform and its outreach to local businesses. The club relies on using social media to announce information about cleanups, research, and community outreach.

“We have introduced new committees to create videos for our social media (we even started filming a full-length documentary),” said Shores.

“With the great help of our former vice president, Avery Owen, and our former social media coordinator, Hailey Redman, we were able to really use social media to our advantage, really grow our engagement by creating stunning graphics and visuals to catch students’ attention and interest. Our social media presence has grown exponentially over this semester,” said Shores.

Social media and an increase in members allowed the club to expand their cleanups to local riverbanks, while their original focus was just beaches, and throughout downtown Wilmington which helps decrease the amount of pollution that eventually ends up in the ocean. Most river pollution comes from landfill runoff, city sewage, development and oil spills. Their work for the ocean translates into other areas in the community that need help.

“I think we have a responsibility as an organization with a platform to amplify other voices, such as food insecurity in the Northside or bringing donations to our homeless population in places that we clean up. I think part of our growth as an organization has been to become more connected to our community and to continue to understand that all things are connected,” said Shores. The club is able to adjust its goals to achieve a higher level of clean-up by expanding beyond the seas and cleaning local rivers as well as promoting community and student engagement to strengthen its overall impact.

In the spring of 2022, the Plastic Ocean Project aims to organize more beach clean ups and use artistic platforms such as photography and film to show the reality of an ocean in need of a life raft. The club is also preparing creative pieces for the 6th annual art gala: UNCW POP Plastic to Art. The gala is scheduled for April 8 at 5 at Hi-Wire Brewing.