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Environment

Scientists Want You to Help Map Plastic Waste on Beaches — From the Comfort of Your Sofa

Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastics enter the ocean. But according to an environmental charity, researchers can currently only account for where 1% of it ends up — on the ocean surface. 

So where is the missing 99%? 

The answer, according to the Plastic Tide charity, is on the seafloor, in marine life, and on our coastlines. And to account for that vast volume of missing plastic, researchers are calling for the help of the public. 

Take action: Fight Waste to Protect Our Oceans

Using aerial photography and drone technology, the Plastic Tide has taken hundreds of thousands of images of beaches around the world —  including in the UK, the US, and Australia. 

The aim is to use these drone images and “the power of computer programmes” — a.k.a. Machine Learning Algorithms — to create a programme that can automatically detect, measure, and monitor the levels of plastics and marine litter washing up on beaches.

It would eventually help the charity track where plastics and litter go in the oceans — that missing 99%. 

Dr. Erik Van Sebille, the Plastic Tide team science advisor, and world expert on marine plastics, said it would “significantly enhance our understanding of the amount of plastic on coastlines, by trialling revolutionary drone-based automatic detection of the litter.”

Read more: Disturbing Photos of Plastic-Wrapped Dolphin Inspires Norway to Clean Up Its Waters

It would also help identify hotspots, the impact of plastic pollution, and the fate of the plastics we use in our day-to-day lives. 

“Marine creatures die each year through starvation due to eating plastic that stays in their stomach making them feel full,” said Peter Kohler, founder and director of the Plastic Tide. 

“It is estimated that we eat up to 11,000 pieces of microplastics a year, and if nothing is done to tackle the issue of plastic in our oceans, it’s estimated that there will be 80 million metric tonnes of plastic going in to the sea a year by 2025,” he said. 

“The good thing, though, is everyone has the opportunity to be part of the solution,” he added. “Helping identify rubbish on the Plastic Tide site will be one invaluable way of helping to keep our beaches clean.” 

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And you can help by visiting the website, where the charity has posted the images in an interactive map, and tag the plastic items that you see in the photos — teaching the computer programme how to identify plastics. The more people who tag plastic items, the better the programme gets at identifying plastic, according to the charity. 

It’s important work. Sixty percent of our oceans are now heavily contaminated with plastics — with each piece taking over 400 years to degrade.

The images taken by the drones, the tagging, and the computer programme will all be freely available online for anyone to use — so others can monitor beaches near them, but also generating valuable data sets for local and global researchers. 

In honour of British Science Week, the Plastic Tide has joined forces with the British Science Association to urge the British public to support the project. The BSA had set an initial target of 250,000 image tags for the week — but it was smashed in just 24 hours. Now they're going for 1 million tags by the end of the week. 

Read more: This Coffee Chain Is the First in the UK to Charge a 'Latte Levy' for Disposable Cups

The duo has also published the most common plastic items on UK beaches, after researchers analysed 3,000 items in the past year from across 30 beaches. And the plastic from food packaging, including wrappers, bottles, and caps, makes up 21% of rubbish, they said.

The top 10 most common items found on UK beaches:


1. Plastic rope/small net pieces — 37%

2. Plastic or foam fragments — 29%

3. Plastic food wrappers — 7%

4. Plastic bags — 5%

5. Plastic bottles — 4% 

6. Fishing lures and lines — 4%

7. Container caps — 3%

8. Fabric pieces — 2%

9. Plastic jugs or containers — 1%

10. Straws — 1%


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