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Surfing for Science

Surfing for Science is a pioneering initiative to assess the level of microplastic pollution in shoreline waters. Citizens participate in the project by collecting scientific samples whilst paddle surfing. The final objective is twofold: knowing how much and what type of microplastics are present in coastline waters will help us find solutions to reduce their impact; we would also hope that society becomes more scientifically aware of the problems that plastic pollution generates.

What is the Surfing for Science project?

The Surfing for Science project came from the need to find out more about the levels of plastic pollution in the seawater close to the shore. Having large marine research ships come into this area where water is shallow and there may be swimmers isn’t viable. But it’s an area we’re especially interested in studying because we think it’s here that the flow of plastic is especially high. If you think about it, the seashore is an area of transition between the sources of plastic and their final destination, between the land and our oceans.

What are microplastics and how do they affect the environment and our health?

Microplastics are defined as any plastic items smaller than 5mm. They can come from the deterioration of larger objects such as containers or bags or they can be released directly into the environment in the form of fibres, pellets or sticks. If ingested by marine organisms, they can cause a number of problems including drowning, obstruction, poorer growth rates as well as death from starvation. Chemical compounds within the plastic can cause hormonal alterations that may in turn generate a false feeling of satiation, hence the possibility of starving to death.

How do microplastics reach the sea and what kind of microplastics do you think you’ll find?

Microplastics come from many different sources. One is from people who leave plastic litter on the beach or throw it into the sea from fishing or recreational boats. Others include industrial discharge, water run-off or wastewater that is then carried out to the sea via our rivers. The type of discharge determines the type of microplastics we find. For example, in Tarragona (100km south of Barcelona) there’s a big petrochemical plant, so we can expect a more primary, pellet-type of microplastic there. In areas close to Costa Brava (north of Barcelona) we would expect to find more fibres from artificial turf. What is important, however, is when we find them and this would normally be after heavy rains. The rain washes away all the microplastics on the land surface and carries them out to sea. The surge of the waves inland prevents these plastics from going further out to sea.

How do you collect the samples, what do you analyse in the lab and how do you draw conclusions?

We have a network of entities on the Catalan coast that partner with us to organise the citizen volunteers. The volunteer paddles for a nautical mile – about an hour of exercise – with a lightweight trawl attached to the back of the board. The trawl, which was designed especially for this project, includes a microplastic fishing net that catches all plastic particles bigger than 0.3mm. These microplastics are counted in the laboratory. Since we know the distance the paddle surf has travelled, we can calculate the concentration of microplastics at each trawl site at a given time. We also characterise the plastics so as to pinpoint their source. Properties such as color, shape, and the polymer of each microplastic gives us ample information to predict its origin.

How can we solve the problem of microplastics and what role will Surfing for Science play?

The Surfing for Science project will help us understand where microplastics come from and how they are dispersed in our coastline waters. This is the first step towards developing strategies to curb their prevalence. For example, if we find a lot of personal hygiene products, we have to make more of an effort with our wastewater treatment plants. If we find pellets, we can identify the companies responsible for those discharges. If we find remnants of astroturf, we can design mechanisms to make the rainwater from football pitches pass through a water treatment plant. We can carry out campaigns to clean the riverbeds and thus prevent torrential rain from sweeping plastic residue out into the sea. In addition, we should change the way we produce and consume and aim for a zero waste policy.

What’s the final objective of the project?

There are two objectives. The first is to determine the amount and characteristics of the microplastics in our coastline waters. With this information we hope to provide new insights into this critical area where plastics pass from the land into the sea. Secondly, we believe that involving citizens generates greater scientific awareness and draws society’s attention to the specific problem of plastic pollution.

What is citizen science?

Citizen science is scientific research carried out by non-scientists, usually in collaboration with scientists. It could be, for example, collecting bird sightings by the general public to study bird biodiversity and distribution. Another example could be to set up a network of computers that can then be used to generate simulations. The result is twofold: on the one hand, we improve scientific knowledge of a particular issue, and on the other hand, we increase society’s awareness and knowledge of this issue.

How can citizens, companies and institutions collaborate with you?

We currently have microplastic trawl nets at ten different sites on the Catalan coast. These nets are taken out once a fortnight to collect microplastics that float close to the seashore. Citizens can contact any of the entities in these ten sites and sign up for sampling. As far as companies and institutions are concerned, they can contribute with funding which would be used to build more trawls and to fund the work in the laboratory. This financial support would allow us to enlarge the scope of the project.

A project by: Marine Geosciences research group – University of Barcelona (UB)