Plastic film that was wrapped around a Skagen salad baguette, parts for a bicycle, and a theft protection tag from a garment. But perhaps most common of all, plastic confetti and cigarette butts. This is what class 9C from the Elyseum Montessori School found when they collected plastic litter for the Plastic Experiment.
it is a Friday at the end of April and the class, with their teacher Ingela Bursjöö, have walked down Norra Allén between the Garden Society of Gothenburg and Bältespännarparken in central Gothenburg, a stone’s throw from the school. It is a busy stretch of the street. The idea is that they will collect all the plastic they find in a 100-metre section, and then report the results.
The pupils are each given a black plastic glove and a reporting form, and then start picking up any plastic litter they find. The litter is then sorted into 23 different categories, such as soft plastic food packaging or cellophane from cigarette packets. They find a considerable amount of plastic.
“It’s more than I thought there would be,” says Adam, picking up what looks like a piece of plastic bag.
The plastic collection is part of a citizen science project organised by Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation and VA (Public & Science) – the Plastic Experiment. Schools across the country collect plastic litter and report the results in a database, which is then made available to researchers. The researcher in charge of the Plastic Experiment is Bethanie Carney Almroth, an ecotoxicologist and plastics researcher from the University of Gothenburg.
“I’m anticipating many different outcomes from the Plastic Experiment. First and foremost, to get the data – to gain access to a mass of data across Sweden, from different biotopes and geographical areas, and really be able to work on plastic problems in Swedish conditions. To be able to see where in Sweden we have problems and how we can move forward to solve them. Then it will be interesting to see how the pupils experience this. What do they get out of this? Can we interest the pupils in the scientific process, and can we influence their attitudes towards nature?”
someone who directly reflects on this attitude and approach to littering is year nine pupil Livia, who mostly finds bits and pieces and cellophane in her limited area.
“I think this gives you an idea of how much litter there actually is, and makes you extra careful to throw litter in the bin,” she says.
Helping researchers collect data is nothing new for the pupils at Elyseum Montessori School. They have previously participated in the Help a Scientist project organised by the Nobel Prize Museum for example, and most recently in the Pollenkoll project. According to Ingela Bursjöö, the fact that the pupils’ input is highly valued gives them more motivation to participate.
“They can see the relevance, and are clearly motivated when they see what the information can be used for. I find that pupils are highly engaged in science subjects. They understand that their future is at stake.”
in addition to the collection itself the pupils will also analyse the plastic litter they find. There are a few different methods that can be used, and at Elyseum Montessori School, the pupils will examine the density of the plastic to determine what type of polymer it is. It is mainly the older pupils participating in the Plastic Experiment who can choose to analyse the plastic. The younger age groups only collect and report what they find.
everything reported will then be analysed, and Bethanie Carney Almroth hopes that some pupils will help her process the large volume of data. But isn’t there a risk when researchers use data collected by the public and school classes? Can it really be trusted?
“This is something that is often discussed in the research community, but I think we’ve gone past that. Perhaps it’s the researchers who feel threatened? Of course, there is a limitation in the method, but it is important to ask the right kind of questions. In this mass experiment, we use a simple method – the pupils count, weigh and indicate what kind of plastic it is, and report the data in an app. Then, when we go to use the data, we review it based on how it is reported – whether they managed to fill it in correctly and so on.”
Bethanie herself started her research career by studying microplastics and how they affect organisms, which she is still looking into. Today, however, her research field has broadened, and she is involved in various interdisciplinary groups in order to take a holistic approach to plastics in the environment.
“Plastic is good in many ways, but it is used to an unnecessarily great extent in single-use items. It is not sustainable to dispose of materials in this way. We need to think about what happens next already at the design stage. How can we reuse the plastic?”
The Plastic Experiment
WHEN? The Plastic Experiment ran for two weeks at the end of April/start of May. The experiment will also continue in connection with European Researchers’ Night in September 2022.
WHERE? The Plastics Experiment involved school classes from all over Sweden. The Elyseum Montessori School investigated plastic litter in central Gothenburg.
why? To find out how much plastic there is in the natural environment, what type of plastic it is, and how it varies from place to place and type of natural environment.