Every Little Helps: the Big Microplastic Survey

Microplastics © David Jones/Just One Ocean

We take a look at the Big Microplastic Survey to see how citizen science is helping them achieve their goal of becoming a global initiative.

If you caught our recent blog on our use of citizen science you'll know how vital it is to our work, but we're not the only organisation to achieve bigger and better things thanks to this method. This time, we take a look at the fantastic Big Microplastic Survey to see how citizen scientists are helping to tackle one of the biggest environmental challenges of our times: marine microplastics.

Defined as plastic fragments smaller than 5mm in length, microplastics can be created intentionally – think microbeads in beauty products - or form by accident when larger pieces of plastic break down. They have been detected worldwide in soil, rivers, air, and even the depths of the Mariana Trench. The health impacts on human and animal life are not yet fully known, but there is evidence to show that they can stop smaller animals from feeding properly and carry chemicals that are toxic for certain species.

Microplastics collected in Sian Ka'an using the Big Microplastic Survey © David Jones/Just One Ocean

Microplastics collected in Sian Ka'an using the Big Microplastic Survey © David Jones/Just One Ocean

The Big Microplastic Survey is a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and environmental charity Just One Ocean that records and identifies the microplastics on our shores. It uses the citizen science method to collect a large and diverse data set, relying on passionate volunteers from all walks of life. With this in mind, the method takes only 30 minutes and requires no specialist knowledge, equipment, or training. Since launching in July 2018 it has proven hugely successful, with thousands of citizen scientists from 54 countries participating and numbers growing by the day.

The survey team are now working to put all that data to the best possible use by developing their own open access database. Based on the Esri ArcGSI system, the database will be a multi-layered interactive map surfacing everything from the time and location of each submission to the shape, size, and colour of the microplastics found. Even more detailed information will be available to organisations with an Esri license, such as universities and Wildlife Trusts, but anyone will be able to upload and view their data.

Volunteers using the Big Microplastic Survey method © David Jones/Just One Ocean

Volunteers using the Big Microplastic Survey method © David Jones/Just One Ocean

Although undoubtedly impressive, the database faces one significant problem: its scope is currently limited to data collected using the Big Microplastic Survey method. Around the world, and even within the UK, there are several methods for surveying coastal microplastics, but slight differences mean that their data cannot be combined. To tackle this, the survey team conducted a series of compatibility studies in which volunteers used different methods on the same day at the same site; if the results show no significant statistical difference then the various methods can share their data.

The database will also be compatible with data sets on other elements of environmental monitoring, which will allow users to identify correlations between numerous factors. While testing this capability last year, for example, the survey team found that deposits of microplastics around East Head and West Wittering were related to the accretion and erosion of sediments in this area. It is hoped that this compatibility will enable a more joined-up approach between people working in different aspects of conservation, and build a more complete picture of the pressures facing our seas.

If you’d like to get involved in this fantastic initiative, you can find more information on the Big Microplastic Survey website. Huge thanks to founder and CEO David Jones for sharing his thoughts with us. Why not check out some of the other ways you can become a citizen scientist through our project Secrets of the Solent, from sharing your seagrass sightings to searching for species on our shores?