Assessing the value and challenges of using citizen-science to understand plastic pollution in the marine environment

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Biosciences

Abstract

Growing evidence suggests that anthropogenic litter, particularly plastic pollution, represents a highly pervasive and persistent threat due to its potential to cause ecological and socio-economic impacts (Beaumont et al., 2019). For example, entanglement, ingestion and the associated increased risk of exposure to chemical contaminants, seabed smothering and abrasion, spread of invasive species, and detrimental effects on human health and well-being. Understanding the abundance, distribution and composition of litter along coastlines is important for designing and implementing effective management strategies aimed at reducing future inputs. Gathering such data, however, can be expensive and time-consuming but organisations that enlist volunteers - or citizen scientists - to clean up litter and record information about its presence, are often able to resolve many of the logistical or financial constraints. Globally, the number of citizen-science litter clean-up projects appears to be increasing and it is essential that we are able to harness the evidence generated by the data they collect and hold. Currently, however, many citizen-science programmes operate independently from one another and our previous work with one organisation, the Marine Conservation Society (Nelms et al., 2017) highlighted that the data they collect are not directly comparable with other organisations due to differences in data collection methods. These differences may be due to a range of factors, such as constraints in capacity, financial restrictions or the challenges of volunteer management. For this project, we will collaborate with UK organisations using an online questionnaire survey and follow-up workshop(s) leading to a high quality, policy relevant peer-reviewed publication, to i) understand the scale of litter removal and data collection by volunteers across the UK; ii) explore the barriers citizen-science organisations face in maximising public engagement of data collection; iii) build capacity for improved data-sharing and evidence gathering throughout the sector; and iv) understand how citizen science clean-up schemes could contribute to more circular plastics economy.

References:
Beaumont N.J., Aanesen M, M. Austen, T. Börger, J. Clark, M. Cole, T. Hooper, P. K. Lindeque, C. Pascoe, K. Wyles (2019) Global ecological, social and economic impacts of marine plastic. Marine Pollution Bulletin 142, 189-195

Nelms SE, Coombes C, Foster LC, Galloway TS, Godley BJ, Lindeque PK, Witt MJ (2017) Marine anthropogenic litter on British beaches: a 10-year nationwide assessment using citizen science data. Science of the Total Environment. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.11.137

Technical Summary

The aim of this project is to assess the value and challenges of using citizen-science to understand plastic pollution in the marine environment. The widespread contamination of global marine and coastal environments by anthropogenic litter is a growing concern, and an increasing body of evidence demonstrates that synthetic and persistent materials, such as plastic, have the potential to cause ecological and socio-economic damage. Understanding the abundance, distribution and composition of litter along coastlines can be instrumental in designing and implementing effective management strategies aimed at reducing future inputs. Beach litter surveys are a well-known technique for gathering such information but considerable time and resources are required to collect meaningful data, which have the spatial coverage to enable the detection of patterns and trends. Litter survey, programmes which enlist volunteers - or citizen scientists - to collect data, are often able to resolve many of the logistical or financial constraints that may otherwise be encountered by studies using paid personnel. Our previous research examined long-term data collected by beach clean volunteers, and demonstrated that citizen-science programmes are an effective tool for monitoring litter. However, it also highlighted a number of constraints that presently limit the applicability and reliability of the data and, therefore prevent the capacity for citizen-science to maximise its potential concerning evidence-based research and policy. Globally, the number of citizen-science litter projects appears to be increasing, presenting an opportunity to improve the scientific quality of data they collect. This project will provide an opportunity to significantly improve marine litter citizen-science in collaboration with UK organisations via an online questionnaire survey and workshops.

Planned Impact

This work will benefit a variety of stakeholders including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the general public, the public sector, business and industry;

- An online questionnaire survey and one-day workshop will facilitate knowledge exchange among relevant citizen-science NGOs (25 appropriate organisations have been identified) and encourage data and resource sharing.

- Attending experts and academic researchers will share recommendations to enhance the 'science' aspect of citizen science, training members of the NGOs in best-practice data collection methodologies to maximise its applicability to scientific research.

- Opportunities for further capacity building opportunities, such as additional workshops or webinars focusing on data collection and analysis techniques, will be explored.

- The outcomes of the workshop will be communicated via a peer-reviewed publication, to which all attending delegates will be invited to contribute. This will be further disseminated via mainstream and social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) held by the University of Exeter and, where possible, the participating NGOs. Efforts to engage with as wide an audience as possible will aim to inform members of the general public, particularly the volunteers affiliated to NGO participants.

- Information gleaned from the survey and workshop will provide evidence that could be used to inform policy and management (for example by Natural England and the Environment Agency), potentially expediting the reduction of litter in the environment and bringing about both environmental and societal benefits.

- Stakeholders from business and industry, in particular those working to create innovative solutions for a circular economy, will be encouraged to engage with NGOs and discuss ways to improve volunteer participation in citizen-science litter programmes and the assimilation of good-quality and useful data (for example, designing an app to record litter accurately and easily).

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description During the course of this project we brought together individuals from 20 environmental NGOs and 5 policy stakeholders to discuss the challenges and opportunities of using citizen science to understand plastic pollution. The discussions held during a workshop have been summarised in a policy-relevant publication which is currently in review.
Exploitation Route Not yet as the paper has not yet been published
Sectors Education,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

 
Description Strategic Priorities Fund - evidenced-based policy making (Research England)
Amount £9,290 (GBP)
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Department Research England
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2020 
End 07/2020
 
Description Policy stakeholder discussion - DEFRA 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact During the stakeholder workshop, attendees expressed an interest and desire to engage with policymakers. We organised this meeting to explore a policymaker's (DEFRA) interest in engaging with citizen science in relation to plastic pollution
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Policy stakeholder discussion - Environment Agency 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact During the stakeholder workshop, attendees expressed an interest and desire to engage with policymakers. We organised this meeting to explore a policymaker's (Environment Agency) interest in engaging with citizen science in relation to plastic pollution
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Policy stakeholder discussion - Marine Management Organisation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact During the stakeholder workshop, attendees expressed an interest and desire to engage with policymakers. We organised this meeting to explore a policymaker's (Marine Management Organisation) interest in engaging with citizen science in relation to plastic pollution
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Policy stakeholder discussion - Natural England 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact During the stakeholder workshop, attendees expressed an interest and desire to engage with policymakers. We organised this meeting to explore a policymaker's (Natural England) interest in engaging with citizen science in relation to plastic pollution
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Stakeholder workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact 20 representatives of 17 organisations attended a workshop to discuss the challenges and opportunities of using citizen science to better understand plastic pollution. All attendees were invited to co-author a paper summarising the workshop outcomes. This paper is currently in review in Environmental Science and Policy journal.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020