Citizen scientists wanted to investigate microplastics in Port Phillip Bay

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By Sue Webster

Would you know a nurdle if you saw one? Could you tell one from a grain of sand?

Nurdles are plastic resin pellets, about the size of an uncooked lentil. They are the industrial raw material used to manufacture plastics. Each year, we produce increasing amounts of plastic: across the world in 2014 we produced 311 million tonnes of the stuff. Tiny plastic particles are ending up in our waterways, on our beaches and in the marine environment. There they become part of a worldwide litter problem known as microplastic pollution.

Environment Protection Authority Victoria wants to find out how big the problem is in Port Phillip Bay. And the Citizen Science team is looking for your help. They plan to work with the community to design a project to sample beach sand and identify and count the microplastics within it.

Any plastic piece less than five millimetres long qualifies as microplastic. As well as nurdles, microplastics include microbeads used in personal care products such as skin scrubs and toothpaste; synthetic fibres and threads in clothing and rope; and tiny fragments resulting from the breakdown of larger plastic items.

To give locals some hands-on experience in identifying nurdles and other microplastics, EPA Victoria’s Citizen Science team held an information session as part of National Science Week on Saturday 13 August at St Kilda Beach. During the morning, 70 participants ran sand samples through a series of sieves, identifying coloured plastic fragments and trying to spot the nurdles – many of which are pale and neutral in colour; some are even transparent. Imagine sifting coffee crystals from the granules and tiny pebbles on the St Kilda shore.

Prospective citizen scientists were also able to examine sand samples under the magnification of a microscope. When viewed under ultraviolet light, nurdles and other microplastics glowed eerily.

Citizen Science Program Coordinator, David Mossop, explained that as the project evolves EPA Victoria will provide citizen scientists with training and resources to assist them. He anticipates running a pilot project over the next year. “That way we will determine the best research method and start to establish baseline data before scaling up the project,” he said. “We suspect there’s a problem but we first need to understand the extent of the issue in Port Phillip and Melbourne before influencing the sources to stop it happening.”

Most microplastics are transported to the bay via stormwater drains. Mr Mossop explained that when tiny plastic fragments in a factory or household get onto the ground, they can end up in the gutters; from there they enter the stormwater system and are carried into creeks, rivers and the bay. “When we drop it on the street, it ends up in the bay.”

Microplastics in the bay are harmful because they look like delicious morsels – some resemble fish eggs underwater – to marine animals and seabirds. “Animals can mistake them for food which can clog the digestive system,” said Mr Mossop. Some animals eat microplastics directly, others eat fish that have eaten microplastics and so they become part of the food chain. Another aspect of the problem is toxicity. “The surface of the microplastics appears to attract other chemicals. When animals ingest the microplastics, these chemicals can become toxic to them.”

David Mossop believes we can all play our part in combating microplastic pollution by reducing our reliance on single-use plastics. He hopes that people who attended the event on St Kilda Beach are now more aware of the problem with microplastics. “They’ll give a second thought about using that plastic bag. And they’ll carry a re-usable coffee cup.”

If you would like to know more or think you may be interested in getting involved in the citizen science project to investigate microplastics in the bay, contact EPA Victoria at contact@epa.vic.gov.au.

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