Lessons Learned from Trash

OCC Student Nick Phillips presents his research at the Syracuse University Earth Science Symposium.

Nick Phillips has always been fascinated by water and the environment. That’s why the Environmental Technology major decided to travel to San Salvador two years in a row to study the impact of trash drifting onto the windward side of the Bahamian Island. Phillips presented his research April 1 at the Syracuse University Earth Science Symposium. He was the only student from a community college participating in the event which was dominated by graduate-level students. “It was a great experience to show professors from other colleges what I had done and what I had learned from the research. I also enjoyed hearing what other students were working on.”

What Phillips learned during his research was both disturbing and remarkable. He traveled to San Salvador Island in the Bahamas in both 2016 and 2017 as part of his attendance in the Geology and Marine Ecology of the Bahamas class (GEO290) and as an internship (ENV201). Both times he went to the windward side of the island and both times it was covered with trash. “Between four of us, we picked up 200 to 300 items and sorted them by what they were made of. By the time we’d stopped picking things up we looked back and you couldn’t even tell we’d made a difference in the amount of trash there. It was really sad to see.”

Months before Phillips first visit in 2016 Hurricane Joaquin ravaged the region, in the process sinking a massive cargo ship named El Faro. “We found a lot of solid, large items washed up on the shore which we believe came from the ship. We found things like unopened bottles of mayonnaise, cans of whip cream and bottles of vitamins.”

The following year Phillips didn’t see any large items. Instead he found fragments of objects from seemingly everywhere. “I found part of a weather buoy from Canada along with things from Ireland, Morocco, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.” He shared lessons learned from both research trips during his presentation at S.U.

Phillips has always had an interest in water and the environment.  Before graduating from Central Square High School in 2015 he did research in local waterways. He would catch fish and bring them to Syracuse University where they would be examined for the amount of mercury they contained. He also participated in the Genius Olympiad at SUNY Oswego. “Both of those activities got me interested in these kind of things.”

Despite his strong performance in this area, Environmental Technology is actually his “plan B.” Phillips career goal is to become a State Trooper. “I’ve wanted to go into law enforcement since I was 5-years-old and they asked us in Kindergarten to draw what we wanted to be. My father is a State Trooper.” He will take the State Police exam in October but plans to remain active in Environmental Technology so he has something to do later in life.

Phillips was planning to transfer to SUNY Cobleskill in the fall but has postponed his acceptance for one year. Next January he will participate in the “Semester at Sea” program through Colorado State University. He’ll board a ship in San Diego, then head to Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, Burma, India, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco and end up in Germany next April. The schedule will allow students the time to sightsee in between working and learning. “I’m going to get to travel the world while getting a semester full of classes on the ship. I’m looking forward to it!”

As Phillips received his degree in May he reflected on his experiences on campus. “I loved it here. It was great to be able to sit down and talk with your professors and have them understand your needs. It was nice having small classes. I have friends at other colleges who have classes with 130 students in them and they don’t know their professors name and the professor knows one or two people in the class. I really liked it here.”

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