Track plastic on the Scheldt in citizen science project


A research project carried out by Antwerp University follows plastic waste from the river to the sea

Trash and trace

Researchers from Antwerp University dumped plastic bottles into the Scheldt river today – but for a good cause. The aim is to track the plastic waste as it moves down river and find out how long it takes it to end up in the North Sea.

Anyone who spots one of the fluorescent yellow objects on the river bank is asked to log it with the project web site, photograph it, then let it continue on its way.

Antwerp University’s Ecosystem Management Research Group has been working on plastic pollution in the Scheldt for some time. Nets have been used to sample plastic found floating in the water, and clean-up projects have given a picture of what washes up on the river’s banks.

But the researchers want more detail, hence the idea of a track and trace project. “We want to map how plastic items behave once they are in the river,” explained Bert Teunkens, a PhD researcher at the university.

Scan and return

In addition to finding out how long it takes plastic waste to reach the sea, the project will explore the effect of the tides on its progress, and the role river banks play in trapping and later releasing the objects.

The fluorescent plastic bottles, boxes and other items thrown into the river today are labelled with tags and QR codes. Anyone finding an item is asked to scan it with a smartphone, and so log its position.

The item should then be placed back where it was found, so that it can continue its journey to the sea. “This is very important in order to map the interaction between the river and the banks,” the project website explains.

When a similar exercise was carried out last December, some 10% of the items released were found and logged at least once on their journey downstream. Six months on, in June, one item was even spotted on the beach between Ostend and Bredene. However a lot of the items are still to be found near the place they were initially put in the river.

Today’s release of objects will take place on the Scheldt at Wintam, Dendermonde and Melle, at high tide and at low tide.

In addition to the fluorescent plastic, the researchers will also release plastic items fitted with GPS beacons, so that their position can be tracked. Others will have acoustic tags of the kind used to track fish, so that their position can be followed if they sink beneath the surface, where the GPS signal is weak.

Photo courtesy Antwerp University