LSU College of the Coast & Environment Joins Global Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative

May 27, 2021

Boats in the dock in downtown Baton RougeIn 2016, the United States generated more plastic waste than any other country in the world, according to researchers within Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, or MRCTI. The Mississippi River acts as a drainage system for 40 percent of the U.S., and much of this plastic waste and other litter travels through storm drains, tributaries, and smaller rivers into the Mississippi, eventually making its way into the ocean.

For several years, Mark Benfield, a professor in the LSU Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, within the College of the Coast & Environment, has studied this explosion in plastics in our waterways and its impact on the environment. In fact, in 2019, his team’s marine plastic pollution research earned them a spot as finalists in the National Geographic and Sky Ocean Ventures’ Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge. Due to the magnitude of the problem, Benfield often collaborates with Mark Benfield speaking at a podiumothers at LSU, nationwide and internationally who are equally as passionate about tackling these issues. Most recently, he has partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme, National Geographic Society, the University of Georgia—or UGA—and Baton Rouge’s Office of the Mayor-President and others as part of MRCTI’s mission to combat plastic pollution along one of the world’s most vital waterways.

“This is the first time that a more-or-less synoptic look at where trash occurs, what kinds of trash are present, and how it moves to the sea has been conducted in three different cities along the same major river system. It also brings together two major public universities—LSU and UGA—and the MRCTI to collaborate on the trash problem that we all face in the Mississippi River drainage basin,” Benfield said.

The Baton Rouge arm of the project was unveiled at an April 10 news conference in downtown along 

Four people, including Mark Benfield and Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome pose with an MRCTI banner in downtown Baton Rouge

the banks of the Mississippi River, where community volunteers came together to clean up trash. The scientists were unable to begin their data collection as planned due to weather, but in the near future, they plan to deploy GPS sensors that will send data by satellite technology (similar to animal movement studies) to track the movements of individual plastic litter items (500 ml plastic beverage bottles) through the Mississippi River system into the Gulf of Mexico. Data collected from these sensors will help scientists, policy-makers, businesses and community members reduce the amount of plastics in the river. Jenna Jambeck, a professor at the University of Georgia who collaborates with Benfield, developed the GPS sensors as well as the Marine Debris Tracker app she co-created with fellow UGA faculty member Kyle Johnsen.

"I'm sure you recognize the value of this monumental waterway," East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said during the news conference held that morning. "It physically shapes our community, it is a staple of our economy, and it is an asset to our environment in Louisiana."

How Everyday Citizens Can Help

The Mississippi River provides hundreds of billions of gallons of water each day to key industries, as well as drinking water to 20 million people in 50 cities in 10 states. The ecology of the river is rich in diversity, supporting the livelihoods of people living along the river as well as a wide range of plant and animal species. We encourage you to join us in this global effort to make one of the world’s largest rivers safer and cleaner for our people, our wildlife, and our environment. All data will be made available to the public online at to 80 percent of marine plastic originates on land, and rivers are a major route for litter to travel to the ocean. Citizen scientists can be part of the solution to combat plastic pollution along the shore of the Mississippi River by downloading the Marine Debris Tracker App on their preferred device, picking a data collection area, and recording any debris found there. This information will be used to generate a "plastic pollution map" that will assist in by scientists, policy-makers, businesses and community members reduce the amount of plastics in the river.