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Project of the Week #2: The Plastic Tide

This week's Project of the Week is dedicated to the lady who made friends with Judy while folding DITOs leaflets on the train when the UCL ExCiteS team went to visit the bus in Birmingham. She asked if there were any citizen science projects on marine litter. There are! In fact, there are more than one - if you are able to physically get to a beach in Europe, try the European Environment Agency's Marine Litter Watch. But our feature today is for those with easier access to a computer: The Plastic Tide, suggested by Margaret Gold - thank you.

What does this project do?
It's training a computer algorithm to go through thousands of images of beaches and recognise litter, to try and find out what's happening to 99% of the plastic that is dumped in the oceans. So far, out of the 8 million tonnes per year we know about, we can only account for 1% of it! Where is the rest going?

What do I have to do?
This is a Zooniverse project, so you guessed it: image analysis. You just need a username and password if you haven't already got one (if you're on any Zooniverse project already, your current username and password will work) and to go to the user interface, where you use your mouse to draw boxes around any items in the images that look like litter and choose from a list of items to say what type of litter it is. There is a tutorial to read and some practice pictures to look at, as some types of plastic can be confused with natural items such as fishing nets that resemble seaweed.

Where can I find out more?
You can check out their home and Zooniverse pages, their Twitter and Facebook and also read these interesting first results.

What's Citizen Science Project of the Week?
Citizen Science Project of the Week is a regular Monday feature at Doing It Together Science. What project would you like to see featured? Please let us know on the contact form, Facebook page or email us at Please put "Project of the Week" in the subject line and send us a link to the project, some information about it and why you'd like it featured. If you want us to, we'll credit you and tag you on Facebook!

More details:
Do you remember drawing hydrocarbons- those long chains of "C"s and "H"s - at school when you learned about oil? Plastics are similarly long molecules, and exist in a similarly repeating pattern called polymers. There are a lot of polymers in our lives, such as starch and our own DNA. They're pretty cool molecules. But a big difference with plastics is that plastics don't easily break down into their former small units (monomers). That's why plastics are so useful: they can be made in any shape you like, are waterproof and they don't disintegrate. But then, when they get out into the environment, they stay there.

This has major effects on wildlife - plastic bags may be swallowed whole, young turtles may become trapped in plastic rings and end up having the shape of their shells changed, and the plastics that do break down to some extent can be toxic. For us humans, it can spoil our day at the beach and often raise health concerns.

You can read a great deal more about types of plastic waste, its impacts and how ocean currents drive it into "garbage zones" here.

There have been a lot of studies done, but when you put all the studies together we still find quite a lot we don't yet know. And the more we know, the better we'll be able to tackle the problem.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is also changing how we do science when there are huge amounts of data: Plastic Tides is using us citizen scientists to train such machines so that they will be able to finish off the project much faster than we would alone.