Year/Course: 2017-2018, Easter 2018

Inventors: Dr. Steve Roberts, Dr. Huw Griffiths & Dr. Claire Waluda, British Antarctic Survey
Mentor: Brian Corbett

Plastic waste is everywhere, even in remote lakes near Antarctica, and is a particularly difficult problem for island nations which rely heavily on tourism. In these cases the islands generate waste locally, waste is brought by tourists, and the islands may also suffer from external pollution brought by the ocean currents. Sometimes tourism is concentrated on one island and the waste is all transported to a different one. Although the visible waste tends to attract most attention in the press and on the internet, there is also the problem of micro- and nano-plastics which are more difficult to track, and may have the greatest effects on public health.

As part of their work in the Antarctic, the British Antarctic Survey have developed a number of different ways to monitor and detect changes in sediments and land masses. Their aim now is to use this expertise to help address the problem of plastic waste and pollution.

Low-flying drones and planes equipped with hyper-spectral cameras can be used to map out the distribution of plastics on beaches, and in combination with geomorphological mapping techniques can help show changes in the characteristics of the underlying soil across an island. The technology can go down to grain-size mapping and plastic materials are relatively easy to detect in this way, even when they are not easily visible to human observers. Combining the results from these images with detailed analysis of physical sediment samples can help trace what is happening to the plastic pollution across the entire water system of an island. The sediment analyses may also help to identify the sources of the micro- and nano-plastics, and track whether it is coming from coastal or inland sources. The ultimate aim would be to produce pollution flow maps showing where pollution comes from, where it moves to and where it does not reach.

The challenge for the i-Team is to investigate where these techniques would bring the greatest benefit, and which countries would want to make use of them. They will also investigate potential sources of funding for these types of projects to allow the BAS scientists to start working in the field to better understand the problem of plastics.