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Where do microplastics come from? How AUSMAP is tackling microplastic pollution with citizen science

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

If you’ve ever caught the Manly Ferry, you would have cruised past the sands of little Manly Cove. Like many Australian beaches, it has a dirty secret: microplastics.

These tiny pieces of plastic are less than five millimetres long and can be made of any kind of plastic. Microplastics are found all over the world, and according to some news reports they can and have found their way into seafood humans then eat. Studies also indicate that the presence of microplastics is not limited to the ocean, but also in the air we breathe.

So where are microplastics coming from, and what can we do about it? Marine scientist Dr Michelle Blewitt is program director for AUSMAP. The global-first mapping project, co-founded by the Coca-Cola Foundation, is mapping microplastic hotspots around Australia.

“By identifying these hotspots, and the type of microplastics, we can potentially look at identifying the sources. Then we're able to assist in management and policy making,” Michelle said.

As an indication of the scale of the problem, Michelle revealed how a single sampling day in Manly Cove saw her team collect more than 1,200 pieces of microplastics per square metre in the area.

“That's a huge volume of microplastic in one location. By being able to identify where these hotspots are and engaging people to identify what microplastics are, we empower them to do something about it,” she said.

Dr Michelle Blewitt at AUSMAP Launch with guests included Operation Straw, Surfrider Foundation Australia and James Griffin MP

The AUSMAP process

Trained AUSMAP leaders, guide groups of community members and high school students in the AUSMAP methodology use sieves to capture small pieces of plastic (between one and five mm in size) found in soft sediments in any type of waterway.

“We’re engaging community members from the general public to high school students in using a standardised methodology to collect rigorous scientific data on microplastics,” Michelle said.

The samples are sorted and examined to look at the type of plastic, quantity and colour.  These microplastics are then further analysed to investigate any chemical contaminants.

The AUSMAP methodology involves using sieves to capture small pieces of plastic found in soft sediments in any type of waterway.

Getting people involved

For Michelle, teaching volunteers and community members about these hotspots and how to address them is just as important as finding the source of the problem. It’s a stance shared by The Coca-Cola Foundation, AUSMAP’s founding corporate partner.

Since 2016, the Foundation has donated more than $1 million to community projects aimed at eliminating the plastic pollution problem and Coca-ColaAustralia believes the solution lies in organisations working together.

“We all know the issue of marine plastics has become a growing global and local concern. Collaborations are critical because no single group can tackle the impact of marine debris alone,” said Sarah Prestwood, senior external affairs manager, Coca-Cola South Pacific.

“AUSMAP was of particular interest because it was a key way to get everyday people involved. There is this overwhelming desire from people to get involved and do something, especially from a younger generation and citizen science really unleashes this,” Sarah said.

It’s a partnership both sides are proud of, and according to Michelle, it’s vital for global brands to show their support for local projects and be part of the change.

“To be able to gain enough information and data to succeed in a project such as this requires funds and support, so it's essential to have financial backing. This research wouldn’t have been possible without those initial funds from the Coca-Cola Foundation,” Michelle said.

With support for the project continuing to grow, Michelle is planning on expanding AUSMAP into other major regions across the country and continuing to educate local members of the community about the microplastic problem.

“It’s about education, engagement and behavioural change. We need to make people change their thoughts and their relationship with plastic, to help them recycle more and use our data to look at areas where the environment is most at risk,” she said.

“If we do that, they’ll go back to their local community and look at things differently and make a change in their own lives with how they use plastics. Whether we make a difference in one person’s life or a large group, it’s all  incredibly worthwhile,” Michelle said.

Written and photos by: COCA COLA JOURNEY



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