Members of the public are being urged to help with efforts to clean Britain’s beaches of plastic waste and other litter – from the comfort of their sofas.
People are being asked to tag litter they see in images taken of beaches around the country, to help teach a computer programme to recognise waste automatically and build up a large-scale picture of the problem.
As they launched the call for help, the British Science Association and charity The Plastic Tide revealed the most common items of rubbish found in a snapshot survey of 30 British beaches, with plastic rope and small net pieces topping the list.
In second place was plastic or foam fragments, making up around 29% of the litter, with 7% coming from plastic food wrappers, 5% from plastic bags and 4% from plastic bottles. In total, plastic from food packaging made up a fifth (21%) of all the rubbish found.
Some of the more unusual items to wash up on beaches which have been found by The Plastic Tide include a solar panel mushroom, a toilet seat, a headless teddy bear and a 20-year-old Lego cutlass. The issue of marine plastic waste has risen up the agenda after being highlighted by the BBC’s Blue Planet II series.
Now as part of British Science Week, the British Science Association and The Plastic Tide are asking for help to tackle the problem. The Plastic Tide has used drones to fly over beaches, focusing on the high-tide line and behind, taking thousands of images which are then uploaded on to a website where people can tag bits of litter they see.
The information from the public is used to teach a machine-learning algorithm how to spot litter from the drone images, to build a much clearer picture than is currently available of what plastic and marine litter there is and where.
The Plastic Tide wants the programme to be able to automatically assess drone surveys to provide publicly-available information that could help target efforts to tackle the problem, such as beach cleans. The aim for British Science Week is to get more than 250,000 image tags by the public to help with the project to clean up UK beaches.
Research from the University of Surrey has found that, while people feel their mood is lifted by being at the coast, littered beaches have a negative impact on their mental state, as well as damaging the environment.
Peter Kohler, founder and director of The Plastic Tide, said: “Marine creatures die each year through starvation due to eating plastic that stays in their stomach, making them feel full.
“It is estimated that we eat up to 11,000 pieces of microplastics a year and, if nothing is done to tackle the issue of plastic in our oceans, it’s estimated that there will be 80 million metric tonnes of plastic going in to the sea a year by 2025.
“The good thing though is everyone has the opportunity to be part of the solution. Helping identify rubbish on The Plastic Tide site will be one invaluable way of helping to keep our beaches clean.”
Ivvet Modinou, head of engagement at the British Science Association, said: “Everyone can get involved in science, and British Science Week is the perfect way for people of all backgrounds, ages and interests to take part in a project like The Plastic Tide and make a difference.
“We encourage everyone to put their scientist hat on today and start tagging.”