Students Look at Scale of Plastic Polluting our Oceans and Beaches


Alisdair Naulls, MCS Public Engagement Officer, visited the University to speak with first year Environmental Science and Geography students about the amount of discarded plastic ending up in the environment, and the impacts it has, particularly on wildlife.

Students took part in practical experiments looking at how plastic is causing pollution, in ways we might not be aware of, which included investigating beach sand samples.

Mr Naulls said: "These students are the next generation of scientists and conservationists who will be tackling this problem. They are massively important. I'm putting information in front of them, but what we need are solutions. These students are the people who will give us data and information that we can present to the public and government and industry to say "look, this is the problem and this is helping". This is a race against time."

Students searched through sand samples taken from Porth beach in Newquay, Cornwall.

They looked under microscopes for plastic particles in sand taken from the beach surface above high tide and at a depth of 30cm, and from the surface at the high tide level.

They then counted the number of plastic items in the sample using high-powered microscopes.

Even in such small (10 ml) samples it revealed the scale of the problem, with many small plastic fragments found, but also nurdles (a basic form of plastic used in manufacturing), fragments of fishing line, and plastic fibre (possibly from clothing). The number of items recorded in sand collected from above the high tide line at the surface was equivalent to nearly 160 particles per litre of sand, whilst over 30 particles per litre were found in sand taken at a depth of 30 cm at the high tide line.

Dr Duncan Westbury, a Principal lecturer in Ecology & Environmental Management at the University of Worcester, said: "This simple experiment has helped to reveal the extent of the plastic problem, we are all aware of large items of litter on beaches, but not the tiny particles below our feet. These particles are getting into the food chain, and the full implications of this are yet to be realised. At Worcester we pride ourselves on producing graduates that can make a difference, and this session by MCS has inspired many."

Students also looked at microscopic plastic fibres shed by clothing during washing, by simulating a washing machine. Patches of swimsuit and fleece were placed in water and shaken. Students then examined the residue from what was left in the water, and were surprised to find numerous fibres.

Nicole Grimason, 21, an Ecology and Environmental Science first year student, said: "It was a fabulous session and I'm definitely going to volunteer with the MCS as I want to go into conservation. It surprised me " you don't really think about it until it's in front of you."

Holly Willis, 19, studying Physical Geography, said: "It's inspired me to think about how we can do more about these things and fix them. I will try to spread the word as much as I can.

"I was always interested in this area but now I feel more passionate about it because the environment is at such high risk of being damaged. We know the damage we're causing on a small scale, so what damage are we causing on a larger scale? I hope to make a difference throughout my career in these kinds of topics, and protect the environment in particular. We're the only species that can do something about it."