Volunteers Sift for Data on Seacoast's Tiny Plastic Debris

Apr 23, 2018

Vidya Balasubramanyam, left, sifts sand for microplastics at Jenness Beach with fellow volunteers Jennifer and Bryce Stetson.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Citizen scientists have begun another year of sifting through sand on Seacoast beaches, in search of tiny bits of plastic known as microplastics.

It's the fifth year for the volunteer-driven New Hampshire Sea Grant project.

Blue Ocean Society executive director Jen Kennedy says scientists want to collect, sort and analyze the different types of microplastics that wash ashore on the Seacoast.

"And then the data we get in a study like this, that can hopefully help point to solutions,” Kennedy says, such as using fewer styrofoam containers, or banning them from beaches entirely.

On a recent survey day at Jenness Beach, volunteers shook sand and debris through mesh sieves like they were panning for gold.

They unearthed dozens of tiny Styrofoam balls, bits of fishing line and candy wrappers.

"We don't really understand all the effects that microplastics have so far,” Kennedy says. “But we know that microplastics are accessible to every animal in the food chain, basically.”

She says that means everything from plankton to whales.

Vidya Balasubramanyam volunteered with the Jenness Beach survey crew. She works full-time as a coastal researcher, but says projects like these are a tangible way to give back on her own time.

"For me, the best way that I feel like I can help make a change is through data and science, so citizen science fits well into that,” she says.

Balasubramanyam also volunteers with beach erosion and invasive species monitoring projects.

She and others will collect more microplastics data from these same patches of sand at Jenness and other beaches, once a month until October.

After that, volunteers will help sort and count the plastics collected, so Sea Grant researchers can add to their growing baseline of data on the sources of the problem.