Plastics Project is a success thanks to citizen scientists

Thursday, 16 July, 2015

Since Australia Day, citizen scientists in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire have been collecting plastic from the local beaches and waterways — and contributing to important research in the process.

The litter is being catalogued as part of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) Plastics Project, which has recorded 20,000 pieces of plastic collected since its commencement on 26 January. This data is enabling ANSTO scientists to gain an understanding of plastic litter arriving in the shire’s waterways, as well as providing the opportunity for the samples to be tested with ANSTO’s nuclear instruments.

ANSTO’s Professor Richard Banati, who has been researching how plastic litter breaks down within an aquatic environment, has found evidence at the atomic level of elements found in plastic also present in the feathers of sea birds in Lord Howe Island. Contributions from citizen scientists are helping Professor Banati and partners from Monash University to continue this research and understand how this transference of elements from plastics occurs.

“We are on the path to understanding the route taken by the huge amount of the end-of-life waste products from plastics, especially when plastic litter has degraded enough to be invisible,” said Professor Banati.

“It is crucial that we have a clear picture of how plastics move through the ecosystem and food chain at the atomic level, and the impact this atomic level transfer has on the environment.”

The data collected by citizen scientists will enable Professor Banati and his team to map the points where plastics are distributed into the local environment. They are also analysing the plastics using neutron activation analysis (NAA), a highly sensitive method which will help the scientists to understand what happens to plastics as they start to break down.

“The input provided by citizen scientists has provided us with a realistic, real-world cross-section of the type and origin of plastic degrading in the environment,” said Professor Banati.

The Plastics Project will conclude on 31 July.

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