Why do seabirds eat plastic? How a citizen science project in Poland helps find answers Global Voices in Dutch

Children are interested in nature and in cause-effect relationships. So they represent enormous potential. Photo: Michał Karmelita, used with permission.

As a child I always wondered why seabirds ate plastic waste. Many of us have seen the pictures of albatrosses dying after eating large amounts of plastic [en – alle links]. But birds have perfect vision! So why are they eating something that looks nothing like their natural food? This story is about what I discovered when I was determined to find an answer to this question.

As a little girl, I did tests by feeding ducks or swans different foods. Oatmeal, for example: they ate it right away. When I threw a leaf into the water, they immediately knew it was not tasty and did not eat it. It took them a split second to recognize if I threw some oatmeal or a chopped carrot into the water. So why doesn’t this perfect vision help the birds distinguish fish or krill (their natural food) from a piece of plastic?

The answer to this question came gradually. First, scientists had found that seabirds not only use their sight, but also their sense of smell. Using their sense of smell, these animals navigate, search for food and even recognize parts of the world. A few years ago, researchers discovered that seabirds sometimes eat plastic because it really smells like their food, not necessarily because it looks like it. It turned out that plastic waste floating on the surface of the oceans begins to release a very characteristic substance over time. It is called dimethyl sulphide (DMS for short).

The wreck line is a place where a lot of plastic ends up in coastal areas. Photo: Michał Karmelita, used with permission.

An entire ecosystem of micro-organisms, small plants and animals soon begins to form on the plastic waste floating in the oceans. Some of these produce DMS. You are probably familiar with this smell: it is released in your kitchen when, for example, you prepare cabbage or shellfish. Unfortunately, DMS is a substance found in large quantities in seabird feeding grounds. For example, in places where there is a lot of krill. Therefore, seabirds associate this sulfur smell with a good meal. After flying long distances, they head for a place that smells of dimethyl sulfide and are easily fooled. They conclude that if something smells like food, it probably is food. Nor can they afford to starve; sometimes they have been looking for food for a long time, so when they arrive they are very hungry indeed.

Citizen science

So we know that plastic is harmful to animals and we need to find solutions. Not only to limit production and use, but also to remove these synthetic fragments that are already circulating in the environment. But to find solutions, we first need to know exactly how much plastic can be found in the oceans and along coasts, and how this plastic ends up in nature.

Beach in Gdynia on the Baltic coast of Poland. Photo: Michał Karmelita, used with permission.

Unfortunately, searching for small pieces of plastic (microplastic) requires a lot of precision and data volume. To count the microplastic particles on the shores, it is necessary to sift the sand carefully and not just look at the surface. Scientists cannot do this themselves because they lack hands for this work. Hence the importance of ‘citizen science’, also known as ‘citizen science’.

Citizen science is an initiative where both ordinary non-scientists and the local community can help professional researchers. Their tasks are very different: sometimes they help analyze data (like NASA Feature Hunter), sometimes they count animals in reserves (like iguanas from above), and sometimes they collect samples. The last example worked very well for analyzing microplastic particles. I have always believed that the best results are achieved when you think globally and act locally, because it not only benefits the planet, but also your local community. This principle also applied when I started coordinating the microplastic citizen science project at the science center where I work.

Citizen scientists help search for microplastic particles. Photo: Michał Karmelita, used with permission.

The methodology of the project is planned by the Institute of Oceanology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, located in Sopot in northern Poland. The project is coordinated by the partner Experiment Science Center in Gdynia [pl] (Gdynia, Sopot and Gdańsk together form the Trestaden). The tasks of the Polish Academy of Sciences project mainly consist of developing the methodology and analyzing and interpreting data. The Gdynia Science Center, on the other hand, has mainly focused on raising awareness in the local community, organizing volunteers, guiding the local community during the project, organizing joint trips to the beach, giving microplastics field training to schools and providing information about the project in senior clubs, etc. Both organizations carry out their tasks Free of charge and the data obtained during the research are of the ‘Open Science’ type: everyone has access to them and can use them in any way.

Huge response

The project to search for microplastic particles on the Polish coast became very popular in the local community. The project’s first cycle ran from September 2021 to July this year and thus lasted an entire school year, with more than 500 residents of the Tricity and surrounding areas applying to participate. The youngest participant was two years old, the oldest over 60. Together they organized more than 300 campaigns and sifted a total of more than 500 liters of sand in search of tiny plastic particles. They all volunteered to search for the microplastic material and obtain as much information as possible about its distribution.

What are the results of this research done by social scientists so far? I think the most important value is the change in the social attitude of the people who participated in the project, including 15-year-old Ola:

I think a turning point for me was finding artificial, acrylic…nails in the sand. A plastic nail, can you imagine that?!– It’s hard to find a more useless invention, something we don’t really need, something we use because we find our own nails… too natural or something. And then we go to the beach, such a plastic, artificial nail will fall into the sand, and then a seagull or tern will mistake it for food and die because of it. It got me thinking a lot.

I think for me finding an artificial acrylic nail… in the sand was a turning point. A plastic nail, can you imagine?! It’s hard to find an even more useless invention, something we don’t really need, something we use because we think our own nails are… too natural or something. And then we go to the beach, such an artificial plastic nail falls into the sand, and then a seagull or tern will mistake it for food and die from it. It got me thinking a lot.

However, the volunteers did not only come from Poland. As the Experiment Scientist Center collaborates with the European Solidarity Center (an international program from the European Commission where young people can participate in voluntary projects), some citizen scientists from the project came from other countries: Spain, France or Turkey. Eva, a volunteer from Spain, shared her experience:

As a citizen science project, it doesn’t require very complicated materials or methods, you can find everything you need at home, and it’s accessible to everyone, even if you don’t like science! You can participate with your family, your friends or even alone. It only takes about an hour, during which you can also see the beach from a different point of view than the usual one: observing the composition of the sand, the biodiversity present or just paying attention to the roar of the sea. For me, it was a way to be more aware of the amount of mesoplasty we could find on the beach and better understand the problems they can cause, which made me think twice when I buy or I want to throw away any plastic bag away. or packing.

No complicated materials or methods are needed for this citizen science project; you can find everything you need at home and it’s accessible to everyone, even if you’re not into science! You can participate with your family, your friends or even alone. It only takes about an hour, during which you can also see the beach from a different point of view than the usual one: observe the composition of the sand and the biodiversity present or simply pay attention to the sound of the sea. For me, it was a way to become more aware of the amount of microplastics we can find on the beach and better understand the problems they can cause, which makes me think twice when I buy a plastic bag or packaging or throw out.

Emilie from France added:

I will say that collecting mesoplasty is not only useful but also fun to do. It’s like going on a treasure hunt while helping science!

I would say that collecting microplastic particles is not only useful but also fun to do. It’s like going on a treasure hunt while helping science!

But the change in social attitudes is not the only result of the project. The analyzes show that no fragments of disposable straws, cutlery or cups can be found among the microplastic material found by volunteers at the Experiment Science Center in Gdynia. What does this show? That the ban on the marketing of single-use plastic products, which was introduced by the European Commission in 2021, shows early results. In previous studies, this type of disposable accessory was responsible for a large part of the waste. There is currently nothing to find.

So what’s next? Most importantly, keep going. It is possible to participate in the project by contacting Experiment Gdynia [pl].

Leave a Comment