Ninety-three percent of all marine plastics are smaller than a grain of rice (Eriksen et al 2014). This summer I made a research voyage through one of the world’s five gyres, huge slow-moving currents in the middle each of the world’s five oceans that tend to accumulate floating debris, including plastics. When our trawls pulled up startling amounts of plastic, signalling our arrival in the South Atlantic gyre and thus to an accumulation zone like the famous “garbage patch,” I leaned over the edge of the ship and took a photograph.
You simply cannot see the vast majority of marine plastics (Emmelhiez 2015). They are tiny. They are dispersed. If you have a body of water near where you live, work, play, or pray, chances are excellent that there are plastics in them. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a citizen science NGO, has found tiny plastics in samples gathered from remote river headwaters in the far north, as well as waters in Maine, Alaska, Argentina, Thailand and Antarctica–everywhere their volunteers collect water (you can join as a volunteer here). I’ve collected water for ASC, and to my eyes, it was plastic free. Yet they found tiny microscopic plastics in the sample.
Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, including participatory monitoring. The research might be shared with professional or accredited scientists, like in ASC’s case, or it might stay at the citizen level and be used for education, local policy changes, curiosity, or a range of other outcomes. But if you have water nearby, how will you know if there are plastics in it given that they are so hard to see? How might you use citizen science to build your case to make local changes that might keep plastics from washing from land into your water ways?
My students and I have been working on the problem of making tiny, often invisible marine plastics visible through do-it-yourself (DIY) and do-it-with-others (DIWO) technologies for monitoring marine plastics. Our efforts are part of Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research‘s (CLEAR) dedication to action-oriented research through grassroots environmental monitoring.