Citizen Science

Turning the Tide on Plastic Litter

I can’t remember the last time I walked along the shore and didn’t see plastic debris. This debris has nasty implications for seabirds, fish, sea turtles, and poses a risk to human health.

Plastic waste is an immense problem. One study estimated that about 4 to 12 million metric tons of plastic washed offshore in 2010 alone. It takes more than 400 years for each piece of plastic to degrade. You can imagine how the problem could balloon over time, unless we do something to change it.

The Plastic Tide, a new citizen science effort with a project on the Zooniverse online portal, is working to turn the tide on plastic litter.

The first step in solving the problem is finding out where the plastic waste goes. So far scientists can account for about 1%, but the distribution of the remaining 99% is difficult to track. Some of it ends up on the ocean floor, some floats in the water column, some is eaten and some washes back up on beaches. But how much is in each location?

Without knowing more precisely where plastic goes, it is impossible to monitor trends or gauge improvement – essential information for governments and organizations that want to ensure their efforts to limit plastic waste are effective.

UNEP – Marine Litter Vital Graphics

Where’s Waldo?

The Plastic Tide is using the latest in drone technology and machine learning algorithms to track the plastic debris that ends up on the beach and they need your help teaching their algorithm what to look for.

The Plastic Tide team’s drones have taken tens of thousands of aerial photos of beaches around the UK.

Your job is to find the (sometimes small) pieces of plastic in the images. Some pieces blend in with their surroundings, so think of it as a treasure hunt or a “hidden pictures” challenge.

If you find something, you tag it and classify it (plastic fragments, ropes, drink bottles, etc.). The instructions on the classify page will help you determine what counts as litter and the Field Guide tab has some more specifics and example images if you’re uncertain.

The Plastic Tide

The algorithm will be paying attention to your choices and over time it will learn to identify plastic in similar images on its own with no human intervention. At that point, the team at The Plastic Tide plans to gather images from around the world and feed them to the algorithm for analysis.

All data from The Plastic Tide will be open source and available to anyone to use in efforts to reduce the amount of plastic in our oceans, on our beaches, and in our food chain. The plastic waste problem may be immense, but so is our potential to turn the tide if we work together.

You can help from your living room or internet café. Join the hunt for plastic debris! And, if you live near the coastline, consider joining a local beach cleanup.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. I’ve been in countries that are on the ocean , and the only time the creeks streams and the like free of litter ( plastic ) and the like is right after the rainy season when all the trash washes out to sea. some countries have an immense problem with trash , no where to go too many people and laws banning incineration .

  2. It is a must!!!!! Every little effort could turn the tide. I hope. Pun intended.

    Namaste ?????

  3. I’m inland here in Colorado, but the plastic tide has been troubling me as a world citizen. This hunt is a great idea. I’ll be posting it on my personal Facebook page.

    1. Thank you Jeannie! One of the things that I love about this project is that it gives people who are inland and can’t participate in beach clean ups a way to help.

  4. How about after it is tagged, pick it up and dispose of it properly.

  5. 1. To work on banning all plastic and make hampsolutions instead
    Then cleaning will need to go on for hundreds of years

  6. As a biologist, I’d say that the FIRST thing in fixing this problem is stopping it at the source–prevention–not finding out where it goes. Need to change people’s attitudes, or do more policing or shaming or something.

  7. People where we live pick up plastics and other debris from our shorelines as well as the regular beach workers. My husband and I pick up items as we walk, makes you feel good to help