Yellow items in the Scheldt

Keep an eye out for neon yellow items in the Scheldt!

UAntwerp researchers counting on citizens' help to map plastic pollution​

Unfortunately, plastic waste is a common sight on the Scheldt and its banks. But now you might see more and more neon yellow items popping up. Researchers from UAntwerp deliberately set this material afloat on the river to find out how plastic moves and how long it takes to reach the North Sea. And this is where citizens come in.

The Ecosystem Management Research Group (ECOBE) at UAntwerp has been conducting research into plastic pollution in the Scheldt for quite some time now. Many plastic samples have been collected by means of fykes or large nets deployed from fishing boats. Clean-up actions are also organised along the riverbanks. The data collected has provided crucial insights, but many questions remain unanswered. That is why biologist Bert Teunkens launched an additional research project.

"We want to map how plastic items behave in and on a river," Teunkens explains. "Our goal is to find out how long it takes for plastic to reach the North Sea from the Scheldt. The project should also provide us with additional insights into the interaction between the river and its banks, with some items being washed ashore and others washed back into the river." 

Acoustic tags

Teunkens and his colleagues set a series of neon yellow objects afloat on the Scheldt at three different locations. "The first batch of items was fitted with GPS transmitters. This allows us to track the floating items very accurately. However, most plastic material floats underwater, where there is no GPS reception. So starting this spring, we're also going to use acoustic tags, a tried and tested technique for tracking fish migration. When attached to a fish, these tags sends out a signal that is picked up by a network of receivers. This allows us to follow the journey of a fish, or in our case a plastic item, from the Scheldt to the Western Scheldt and the North Sea."

These advanced technologies are expensive, so they can only be deployed to a limited extent. In order to be able to track a large number of items, the researchers have developed a citizen science project.

Register your find

"We're counting on the help of citizens. If you see one of the neon yellow plastic items, each of which has a unique marker, you can scan the QR code with your smartphone or go to the website www.zpr.one, where you can get in touch with us and get further instructions. Once you've registered the item, put it back on the bank or in the water where you found it, so it can continue its journey. This way, you as a citizen can contribute to our plastic pollution research, and you could even win a nice prize."

For technological support, the researchers are working with IT company Ordina, which developed the applications for citizens to register any items they find, and which also plays a crucial role in the use of the GPS transmitters.

"We've previously built similar tracking applications for train assembly company Bombardier, and for Proximus Logistics," says Gert Vermeersch, Internet of Things expert at Ordina. "In those cases, the goal was to track company assets. This is the first time we're using IoT to tackle the plastic soup, an issue with high social relevance. We're very excited to be able to contribute to this project", said Gert and his colleague, Frederick Bousson.