Building DIY citizen science technology to see invisible marine plastics

Ninety-three percent of all marine plastics are smaller than a grain of rice (Eriksen et al 2014). This summer I made a research voyage through one of the world’s five gyres, huge slow-moving currents in the middle each of the world’s five oceans that tend to accumulate floating debris, including plastics. When our trawls pulled up startling amounts of plastic, signalling our arrival in the South Atlantic gyre and thus to an accumulation zone like the famous “garbage patch,” I leaned over the edge of the ship and took a photograph:


Photograph of an area within the Sargasso Sea with high concentrations of marine plastics. By Max Liboiron.

You simply cannot see the vast majority of marine plastics (Emmelhiez 2015). They are tiny. They are dispersed. If you have a body of water near where you live, work, play, or pray, chances are excellent that there are plastics in them. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a citizen science NGO, has found tiny plastics in samples gathered from remote river headwaters in the far north, as well as waters in Maine, Alaska, Argentina, Thailand and Antarctica–everywhere their volunteers collect water (you can join as a volunteer here). I’ve collected water for ASC, and to my eyes, it was plastic free. Yet they found tiny microscopic plastics in the sample.

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Map of everywhere ASC has found or not found plastics in their samples.

Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists, including participatory monitoring. The research might be shared with professional or accredited scientists, like in ASC’s case, or it might stay at the citizen level and be used for education, local policy changes, curiosity, or a range of other outcomes. But if you have water nearby, how will you know if there are plastics in it given that they are so hard to see? How might you use citizen science to build your case to make local changes that might keep plastics from washing from land into your water ways?

My students and I have been working on the problem of making tiny, often invisible marine plastics visible through do-it-yourself (DIY) and do-it-with-others (DIWO) technologies for monitoring marine plastics. Our efforts are part of Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research‘s (CLEAR) dedication to action-oriented research through grassroots environmental monitoring. Here is a short introduction to some of the technologies you can build yourself to investigate plastics in your own local environment:


Created with baby’s nylon tights, soda pop bottles, and other inexpensive and easy to find materials, Babylegs can be used to trawl for floating marine microplastics by hand or from a boat. She skims the surface of the water to capture the small plastics that tend to float on the surface of oceans, lakes, and rivers. While we have provided a basic How To Guide to build your own BabyLegs, there are many variations you can add based on your local environment and the materials you have on hand.

BabyLegs is the most charismatic of our marine plastics monitoring technologies. The technology looks like a little person or jelly fish, and during presentations and field research, we treat the technology like a doll because it encourages people to approach us, talk to us, and share images of the technology. The goal of this technology is to make it as accessible as possible so people in remote northern communities can monitor plastics in their fishing and hunting areas. See how to build your own here.

CCBabyLegs by Max Liboiron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Plastic Entanglement Trap (P.E.T.)

The P.E.T. is a do-it-yourself ocean plastic monitoring device based on filtering plastics through a mesh bag containing textured balls constructed out of materials easily found in household settings. The technology is anchored in the water and rests floating on the surface near a shoreline where plastics are commonly found. Water enters the technology from all angles and are entangled in the balls. The P.E.T. is designed to be light and portable so it can be easily transported to, from, and around the water.

The P.E.T. can be made out of multiple  variations of household items found in kitchens or bathrooms, can be bought for inexpensive amounts at stores such as Walmart, the Dollar Store and Pipers, or filter items can be scavenged or created from natural materials. Filter items can be determined by users based on the type of local plastics they hope to catch and the materials they have on hand. The P.E.T. is also designed to work over time and requires little to no physical labour. Instead of trawling the technology, the waves of the ocean are used to mix and naturally filter plastics through the technology. The technology can be left by itself in open waters without consistent monitoring. Users can choose to deploy, check-in, and pick up their technology whenever they please. See how to build your own here.

Creative Commons License
The Plastic Entanglement Trap (P.E.T.) by Eilish Cowan, Clement Gonondo, Adrienne O’Connor, Patrick Squires is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Ice Cream Scoop

To address the problems of marine plastics and public science, we created an educational tool geared towards children: the Ice Cream Scoop Trawl. This is a simple technology that children can help make and use it to learn about marine plastics. It is used to test for presence of marine plastics at the water’s surface. An ice cream container is modified so that water can pass through it and fitted with a handle so that a child can pull it through water. The trawl features two types of mesh, one larger to prevent large debris from passing through, and on the further end, a finer, screen mesh to prevent collected samples from escaping. Reused, affordable and readily available materials are used in its design to prevent cost barriers for individuals interested in building their own technology. Additionally, its affordability may be an attractive feature to organizations such as summer camps, schools, environmental awareness programs, who wish to incorporate the Ice Cream Scoop into their curriculum.

The making and use of the Ice Cream Scoop Trawl engages children with the marine environment and allows them to see the presence of plastics in the ocean. Research has found that learning attitudes and values related to environmental conservation is important in young children to promote action (Cutter-Mackenzie & Edwards, 2014). Further, children learning as active participants in citizen science contributes not only to a fuller understanding of environmental issues for the child but also supplies additional scientific data and involvement, valuable to researchers and the general population (Miczajka, Klein & Pufal, 2015).

Creative Commons License
Ice Cream Scoop by dairy queens (Heather Alexander, Maire Nic Niocaill, Kate Winsor, and Kristen Milley) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Plastic Eating Device for Rocky Ocean Coasts (P.E.D. R.O.C.)

The P.E.D. R.O.C. is specifically designed to be used on rocky coastlines; a terrain which is very prevalent in Newfoundland. We chose to build a device with such terrain in mind because currently there is no data on how to gather and study ocean plastics in this setting. Instead of mircoplastics disappearing between rocks, they are trapped in theP.E.D. R.O.C.

The metal sieve on the top of the device allows water and plastics to flow in, while keeping beach rocks out. The sieve on the bottom of the device is much finer than the top, so water will drain back out while leaving the plastics trapped within the body. This device is meant to be buried in rocks, left for a period of time, and then retrieved. The flag attached is an easy way to spot the device upon return and also provides essential information about the project to individuals who may come upon it during the collection period.

CCThe P.E.D. R.O.C. by Cian Kavanagh, Colin Grenning and Nicolas Brouard-Ayres, and improved by William Glatt, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



All of these technologies are still under development, and anyone who wants to build one can hack, redesign, and reshare their work.


Further reading

Liboiron, M. (2014). “Mapping Waste When Waste is Invisible,” Grassroots Mapping Forum: The Public Lab Community Journal of Environmental Research, 6: 2.

Liboiron, M. (2015). Plastic Smog and Horizontal Smoke Stacks: Representations of Pollution as KnowledgeDiscard Studies

Liboiron. M. (2015). Visually Representing Slow Disasters, Discard Studies


Works Cited

Cutter-Mackenzie, A., & Edwards, S. (2014). Everyday environmental education experiences: The role of content in early childhood education. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 30(1), 127-133.

Emmelhiez I (2015) Images Do Not Show: The Desire to See in the Anthropocene. In: Art in the Anthropocene. Davis H and Turpin, Etienne (eds), pp. 131–154.

Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L. C., Carson, H. S., Thiel, M., Moore, C. J., Borerro, J. C., … & Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PloS one, 9(12), e111913.

Miczajka, V., Klein, A., & Pufal, G. (2015). Elementary school children contribute to environmental research as citizen scientists. Public Library of Science One. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143229

2 thoughts on “Building DIY citizen science technology to see invisible marine plastics

  1. This is great. I collect beach debris as part of my art practice by picking it up off the beach, where I can see items as small as a nurdle or an individual puff/ball of polystyrene. (Frustratingly, I can’t always pick it all up.) I often see debris in the water, but of course that means I am only seeing the stuff that is large enough to see!

    I would very much like to get in touch with others who are doing similar work from a contemporary art/research perspective. My website is:

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