Fighting the Plastic Soup Using Citizen Science Approaches

by Lynn Jula Kessler

Provenance of the Research

Title: Fighting the plastic soup by using citizen science approaches
Research question: How can citizen science approaches effectively contribute to mitigating the issue of marine litter pollution?
Type of thesis: Master of Science in Environment & Resource Management
University Affiliation: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Faculty: IVM – Institute for Environmental Studies


Anthropogenic litter and plastics in particular pose a huge threat to marine ecosystems around the world. The environmental issue of marine plastics is interdisciplinary as it not only negatively affects the environment and its inhabitants, but also human health and economies. Marine litter removal technologies and approaches from different sectors have been developed and implemented. Due to the large spatial and temporal dimensions of this problem citizen science approaches could be the solution to mitigate the plastic pollution. The Dive Against Debris initiative is encouraging recreational and professional divers to participate in underwater clean-ups and contributing their findings to a global database. The Seabin Project developed a device that removes floating litter in marinas. Besides the product the organization puts a high focus on involving people from the public in their research project. By implementing the Share Programme, they offer the opportunity of a citizen science project that collects data on microplastics. By evaluating these two approaches, factors that determine the success or failure of citizen science projects were identified. The results show that approaching a large-scale environmental problem such as the marine plastic pollution can happen most efficiently by involving citizen scientists in the data collection and research process. Volunteers benefit from learning about ecological processes and science benefits from cheap labour and an extensive database.


  1. What were the most surprising findings of your work?

It was not so much of a surprise but still really interesting to see once more that the marine litter removal approach itself is not the thing that cleans our oceans of debris. It is the people that stand behind these initiatives and raise awareness about this global environmental issue. Increasing knowledge, raising awareness, and having people from the general public participate in data collection processes is a highly effective way to mitigate the marine debris issue.

As part of the data collection, I did a survey amongst recreational and professional divers who participate in the Dive Against Debris initiative by Project AWARE. It was interesting to see how inexperienced divers tend to overestimate their abilities to collect marine litter on a dive: 33% of the respondents indicated that they would be able to collect 4 kg of debris whereas dive professionals agreed on 1 – 3 kg as a realistic amount.

  1. What did you struggle with during your research or the writing process and how did you overcome these issues?

The main limitations I encountered occurred during the data collection process. Focussing on only two specific marine litter removal technologies has the advantage that you can really concentrate on these methods. The downside, however, is that fewer participants for expert interviews or online surveys are available.

The expert interviews were aimed as an additional source from which to derive data particularly targeting experts from the Seabin Project. Calling and emailing harbours and marinas in numerous countries did not result in the response rate I was hoping for. Some did not speak sufficient English to understand what I was asking for; others were not familiar with the Seabin even though their website indicated they had one installed. I did, however, receive a positive response from representatives of the Seabin Project directly which balanced this limitation out.

  1. What are you doing now, and what are your plans for the coming year? Did your research impact those plans in any way?

I love being in the field, by which I mean the ocean. Due to the pandemic, however, I am currently landlocked. I am keeping myself busy by working on a freelance basis for the German Ocean Foundation and volunteering for a couple of marine related NGOs. I would definitely say that my research had an impact on my wish to pursue a career in marine conservation. My first placement after graduating was as Project Manager for the UK-based NGO Manta Trust in the Maldives. Being a small island nation, waste management and marine litter pollution are constantly present and visible. Seeing plastic float right where manta rays and whalesharks are filter-feeding, having turtles entangled in ghostnets severely injured or dead, and once even encountering a young manta pup entangled in a mooring line and suffocated to death had me realise that the research on marine debris did not end with my master thesis for me but is an environmental issue that will follow me throughout my whole life.

  1. Do you have advice for people who are undertaking this type of research?

Choose your methods wisely! When starting a research project think about what you want to convey with your work and choose your methodology accordingly. Of course, you can always make small adjustments along the way, but the skeleton of your research remains your methodology.

If you would like to read Lynn’s full thesis you can find it here.

Lynn Jula Kessler graduated with a MSc degree in Environment & Resource Management from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 2018. The university course and specialisation in Ecosystem Services & Biodiversity have allowed Lynn to gain skills and tools which are especially useful in the marine conservation sector. She has since had the opportunity to work for multiple marine related NGOs and notices that the topic of marine litter is as pressing as it has ever been.

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