Promoting sustainable coastlines sharpens interest in renewable energy

UG student Nora Desmond traveled to New Zealand with a group of fellow engineering students, and came back with a renewed commitment to sustainability, and new friends.
Nora Desmond
Nora Desmond at the New Zealand beach where the team gathered litter.

Nora Desmond, undergraduate student in electrical engineering, traveled to New Zealand over the summer to help clean up their coastlines in a trip sponsored by the U-M Engineering Global Leadership (EGL) Honors Program. She came back with a renewed commitment to sustainability, and new friends.

Nora coordinated the timing of this trip around her internship at Caterpillar this past summer, where she was testing batteries. Now in her third year at Michigan, Nora wants to expand her knowledge about sustainable energy.

We asked her about her trip:

What was your motivation for going on this trip to New Zealand?

I was interested in issues of sustainability, and this was one of the trips offered through the EGL program, which I had recently joined. Sustainability is part of everything in today’s world, and I was curious as to how a country that’s known for being eco-friendly would handle it.

I also wanted to get to know some people at a more personal level, and as only five of us went on this trip, I was able to do that. I started at Michigan in the year of COVID, so it was difficult to make friends. During the trip, I also got to hear about some really interesting internships and opportunities from the other students – and that gave me ideas of what I could do with my major.

What did you find on the beaches?

I was surprised to find how much litter there was on the New Zealand beaches, even in very affluent areas. But I learned that this is because of how the tides flow. Some places are at a greater risk for this, no matter how much money you have, because the garbage is flowing in from the ocean. 

I think we all have to tackle this problem by working together.

What kind of effort did you join?

The local non-profit group that we worked with, called Sustainable Coastlines, is not just picking up trash. They’re doing a very thorough job of cataloging it as well. That includes counting each piece of litter, cataloging the type of material, and the mass in each category of material. 

The group then uploads the information to Litter Intelligence, which tracks the litter in different beaches around the world to understand how it’s flowing across the oceans. This detailed information is then provided to the various government agencies, with the hope that they’ll implement policies to make positive changes.

Litter Intelligence provides detailed maps of where the litter is ending up – and it was surprising to me that the beaches around America were not the worst hit by litter. Yet looking just at the U.S., the beaches in Alaska were hit harder than the beaches in California, all due to the ocean currents.

What did you ultimately get out of the trip?

I enjoyed getting to know people from different majors (there were students in mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and computer science on the trip), and I also thought more about sustainability issues. For example, I know that battery research is fairly new and that batteries are becoming more effective, but I wonder how eco-friendly the making of batteries is, as well as their ultimate disposal. They don’t just disappear, just like the plastic in the ocean.

I’m now interested in how we can make eco-friendly batteries, as well as solar panels, and electronics in general. In my final years at Michigan, I want to learn more about sustainable energy.

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