Plastic waste on UK beaches targeted by citizen-science AI project

Image credit: pa

Members of the public are being asked to tag litter on beaches in drone photos in order to develop an AI that can automatically locate coastal detritus to help with clean-up operations.

The project is led by the British Science Association and charity The Plastic Tide which wants to develop a programme to be able to automatically assess drone surveys to provide publicly available information that could help target efforts to tackle the problem, such as beach cleans.

The Plastic Tide has used drones to fly over beaches, focusing on the high-tide line and behind, taking thousands of images which are then uploaded on to a website where people can tag bits of litter they see.

The information from the public is used to teach a machine-learning algorithm how to spot litter from the drone images, to build a much clearer picture than is currently available of what plastic and marine litter there is and where.

The most common items of rubbish found in a snapshot survey of 30 British beaches were revealed to be plastic rope and small net pieces.

In second place was plastic or foam fragments, making up around 29 per cent of the litter, with 7 per cent coming from plastic food wrappers, 5 per cent from plastic bags and 4 per cent from plastic bottles.

In total, plastic from food packaging made up a fifth (21 per cent) of all the rubbish found.

Some of the more unusual items to wash up on beaches which have been found by The Plastic Tide include a solar panel mushroom, a toilet seat, a headless teddy bear and a 20-year-old Lego cutlass.

The issue of marine plastic waste has risen up the agenda after being highlighted by the BBC’s Blue Planet II series.

The aim for British Science Week is to get more than 250,000 image tags by the public to help with the project to clean up UK beaches.

Research from the University of Surrey has found that, while people feel their mood is lifted by being at the coast, littered beaches have a negative impact on their mental state, as well as damaging the environment.

Peter Kohler, founder and director of The Plastic Tide, said: “Marine creatures die each year through starvation due to eating plastic that stays in their stomach, making them feel full.

“It is estimated that we eat up to 11,000 pieces of microplastics a year and, if nothing is done to tackle the issue of plastic in our oceans, it’s estimated that there will be 80 million metric tonnes of plastic going in to the sea per year by 2025.

“The good thing, though, is everyone has the opportunity to be part of the solution. Helping identify rubbish on The Plastic Tide site will be one invaluable way of helping to keep our beaches clean.”

Ivvet Modinou, head of engagement at the British Science Association, said: “Everyone can get involved in science, and British Science Week is the perfect way for people of all backgrounds, ages and interests to take part in a project like The Plastic Tide and make a difference.

“We encourage everyone to put their scientist hat on today and start tagging.”

Images of UK beaches for tagging as part of The Plastic Tide project are now available online.

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