When I was young my father used to say, “Nothing good was ever made out of plastic.” He was an engineer, and although back then he was responding to the issue of products breaking easily, he may have also been referring to the product chain. Now plastics are everywhere, and innovators and scientists are trying to figure out the best way to deal with them, especially those in the ocean. Of course some of the litter ends up on beaches, and that’s where Zooniverse’s newest challenge The Plastic Tide puts its focus. Here’s part of their intro message:
Estimates are currently at trillions of pieces and counting, with over 60% of the oceans being heavily contaminated with plastics. With each piece of plastic taking over 400 years to degrade, our oceans, all marine life, and even our own health and livelihoods are in real danger of drowning. Despite this and the 8 million tonnes of plastics entering our ocean each year, researchers can only account for where 1% of that it ends up; our ocean surface. That begs the question where is the missing 99%?
Drone photography of UK beaches is posted on the site and citizen scientists can identify the different types of plastic that appear. Strangely, the process of identifying bits of plastic in the photos is a lot like a mindful practice. This is partly because the photos resemble modern art with bits of sand, stones, shells and reeds. It’s also because the process really forces you to look closely at detail. The tools are easy to use including a cursor with a rectangle drag and pop-up menu choices. Some of the photo galleries turn up interesting compositions, like one with a skeleton of some marine life or another with tangles of fishing line. Although the photos are a disturbing recording of human intrusion, they also offer the chance to train a machine learning algorithm and identify the places that are most in need of help.
Although I’ve heard of successful beach clean-ups, this seems to be one of the best ways to really help the plastic pollution crisis. The people at The Plastic Tide have also decided to make things open-source. So, it’s possible that others could start posting images of their troubled beaches to add to the collection. If you want to learn more about the issue, check out the team’s description of the problem. I’m thinking this Zooniverse challenge might just be the perfect shore volunteer vacation option. Visit your fave shore by day and visit a virtual shore for a few hours by night. Be part of the changing tide.
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