We had the good fortune of connecting with Madeline Kaufman and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Madeline, what’s something about your industry that outsiders are probably unaware of?
At Debris Free Oceans, we work to eliminate marine debris through inspiring local communities to responsibly manage resources and waste. The most abundant, most problematic type of marine debris consists of single-use plastic pollution. Think plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic utensils. Items that are used for a matter of minutes and then exist in perpetuity either in landfills or the environment. What most people aren’t aware of is the inextricable connection between plastic pollution, the climate crisis, COVID-19, and social injustice. Plastics are made from the byproduct of oil production. With reduced demand for natural gas during quarantine, petrochemical companies are now diverting their chemicals for use in expanded production of single-use plastic items. These companies are even using COVID-19 to generate community fear of using reusable bags and containers; they have written to the US Department of Health and Human Services requesting the lift of plastic bans citing health concerns that are not based in sound science. These petrochemical plants also emit hazardous air pollutants that are carcinogenic and associated with many ailments including respiratory diseases. These plants are almost always within miles of communities of color. Researchers theorize that this might largely explain the higher COVID-19 mortality rates in people of color. By saying no to single-use plastics, you will be hitting several birds with one stone and pushing back against decades of pollution, climate warming, and racial inequity. We invite you to join this hugely important cause <3
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
After completing my Bachelor of Science, I took a year off to figure out what was next. I knew I wanted to complete another degree but was not sure what I wanted to focus on. I am so glad that I took this time off because it allowed me to volunteer with Rescue a Reef and Debris Free Oceans and decide that I wanted to dedicate my time to their ocean conservation causes. After several years of volunteering and going back to school to complete a Master of Science in Marine Biology at the University of Miami, I now work for both organizations (you can read more about that journey here)! Rescue a Reef is a citizen science program at the University of Miami that educates the community about coral restoration and gives recreational snorkelers and divers the opportunity to go on coral gardening dive expeditions. Debris Free Oceans is a Miami-based nonprofit dedicated to eradicating marine debris through community engagement by hosting cleanup events, delivering educational presentations to local schools, providing sustainability consulting to businesses, and more. It has taken so much work to create a career in marine science and outreach compared to more traditional tracks (I actually was voted “Most Likely to Be in Club Richter” (Richter is my school’s library) as an undergrad). I’ve often received comments like “oh you just get to SCUBA dive all day,” because I partake in a lot of research diving, to which I respond something along the lines of- try doing hours of homework, research, and writing after 8 hours in the hot sun, carrying heavy SCUBA tanks, and diving (an energy-intensive sport). I wouldn’t trade these challenges for the world, and I am definitely blessed with the opportunity to dive for my work, but its definitely not easy. Another recent challenge I have faced is accepting (and loving!) my current work situation. I am now dividing full-time hours between Debris Free Oceans and the University of Miami’s Coral Restoration Lab. It’s a dream! But it doesn’t come with benefits or retirement plans. As a recent graduate (just this May!) now holding a Master of Science, its not hard to notice the concern coming from family and friends when they ask where I am working and my response is two part-time jobs. However, I am DFO’s first part-time employee and it has been so incredible to be a part of building this grassroots organization from the ground up. And I am so grateful to continue contributing hours to coral conservation projects with the University of Miami. No I am not part of a company or government program with long-term plans to climb an employment ladder. But I believe in these causes so much, and will do what ever I can to continue building a life of meaning that I truly love.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
1. Key West – favorite place ever! The food, the fish, the music, the island vibes- a MUST
2. Wynwood – I am always inspired by the artwork & love all of the breweries
3. The Florida Reef Tract – go diving on the world’s third largest barrier reef tract! If you can’t get out there, snorkel along the jetty at South Pointe Park- accessible right from the beach at 1st street and home to a surprising amount of coral.
4. The Everglades – truly no other ecosystem in the world like it. Don’t be scared away by tales of mosquitoes and alligators, go experience the hugely important “River of Grass!”
5. The Florida springs – beautiful crystal clear water and alluring caves
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Thank you so much to the non-profits Debris Free Oceans and Rescue a Reef for teaching me about important sustainability crises and providing me with opportunities to get involved, learn so much, develop professionally, and better our local environment and community. I began working with these organizations as a volunteer in 2016, and have since been on-boarded to work and dedicate many hours to their causes (loving every second of these jobs)!
Albert Manduca, Steve Boxall, Martin Framez