If You Can’t Reuse It, Refuse It !

5 Top Tips for Reducing Plastic Pollution.

At present it seems impossible to avoid plastic completely. However, there are ways in which you can limit your exposure. The UK government are aiming for all plastic to be either reusable or recyclable by 2042 – That’s 24 years from now! – Here are five top tips to start the reduction of plastic pollution now.

1. Why not return back to traditional shopping methods? Only a third of consumer goods currently get recycled, leading to tonnes of plastic floating in our oceans, washing up on our beaches and even entering our food chain. That’s correct, when you eat seafood your also eating tiny pieces of plastic. The largest amount of single-use plastic waste comes from the grocery sector. When it comes to ticking off the items on your shopping list why not grab alternatives to the more ‘convenient’ items that you would normally choose. Instead of buying pre-packed fruit and veg, why not buy loose fruit and veg avoiding unnecessary plastic. Other items that are available in alternative packaging include but are not limited to milk, juices, eggs and washing powder. You could purchase soap bars instead of buying the liquid soap in plastic containers. There’s no need for old fashioned soap bars, Lush Cosmetics sell handmade soaps with natural ingredients in all sorts of fancy fragrances.

2. A large portion of supermarket plastics, especially black plastic and protective film is not currently recycled because the recycling technology cannot pick it out against the black conveyer belt. This is also the case with most coloured plastic such as green bottles and milk bottles. Recycling technology struggles to recycle plastic milk bottles because of the different coloured lids that indicate the different varieties of milk. It is impossible to avoid all plastic when shopping at a supermarket. When offered a variety of the same product you can check to see if the plastic packaging it comes in is recyclable and opt for that product ensuring that when you are finished with the product the packaging is correctly recycled.

3. Before your weekly venture to the supermarket the first thing to remember are your reusable shopping bags. Since the tax on plastic bags was introduced in 2015 it has seen the usage of them decrease by 85%. This means that since 2014 their appearance on beaches has gone down by 40%. You could even invest in the canvas ones – They are available in prettier designs and will last longer !


4. When it comes to single-use items, as the name suggests they are used once, thrown away and forgotten about. However, they are readily abundant for all to see on our beaches and in the ocean due to our ignorance when it comes to purchasing single-use items. It is estimated that by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish.

The biggest single-use problem is plastic bottles. Since last year there has been a surge in the amount of plastic bottles. Most plastic bottles that are used for water are made from a highly recyclable material. Even if once you have finished with the plastic bottle you recycle it, due to the sudden rise in the amount of plastic bottles the recycling companies are struggling to keep up. Fortunately there is a way in which you can keep hydrated without purchasing those pesky plastic bottles. Whenever you leave the house remember to take your refillable water bottle. It’s starting to become easier to get access to water when out and about with shops, cafes and businesses offering free water refill stations in the major towns and cities across the UK.

5. During early morning commutes to work when it’s cold and miserable sometimes all you need is a nice warm hot drink, so you grab a takeaway one for the journey. If you needed any other reason to purchase a hot drink then most cafes now offer a discount for customers who bring in their own reusable coffee cup. Here at Staffs Uni the Costa franchises offer a 10p discount when you bring your own cup. To help minimise waste Starbucks are starting a trial in which a 5p charge has been added to takeaway drinks. Therefore, if your wanting to save a few pennies whilst also helping the environment then why not add a reusable coffee cup to your bag.

Chelsie Maxwell (Chelsie.Maxwell@staffs.ac.uk)

‘Plastics in the Ocean’ Conference at BAS

On Wednesday 7th March 2018, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) hosted the ‘Plastics in the Ocean: Challenges and Solutions’ conference. Professor Dame Jane Francis got the conference underway. She welcomed all to BAS explaining what they do as an organisation and then briefly touched on the problem that was responsible for bringing us all together at this event. Next up was the chief executive of NERC, Duncan Wingham, he explained about the funding programmes they have to offer to bring the consequences of plastic pollution to the people’s attention. He finished by encouraging the audience to use the conference to help address the issues we are currently facing.

Professor Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth, started the morning session by asking the question of whether there is a solution to this global environmental problem. He started by explaining the extent of the problem, that plastic is the predominant type of litter found globally which means that it is almost impossible to walk along a shoreline without stumbling across litter. He stated that there isn’t just one solution there are many to help the fight against plastic pollution. We need  to keep gathering evidence and start making good progress towards solutions. Plastics as materials are not the cause of the problem because they bring benefits since they are lightweight, durable, inexpensive and help to reduce food waste. What we need to focus on is balancing the benefits with the environmental harm by simply doing things differently. The starting point to tackle marine litter would be single use items. We need to design products for life and end-of-life to minimise accumulation of plastic waste. Richard ended his presentation by warning that unless we change our ways it may become an even bigger problem.

The next presenter was Giles Harvey from Sky Ocean Rescue. He explained that this campaign was launched to raise awareness to help save our oceans and to inspire positive actions. They aim to remove all single use plastic from their business by 2020. They have made progress with this by removing single use water bottles from their offices and launching the Sky Soundbox which had single-use plastic free packaging. To start an impact on the supply chain they ensured awareness and commitment amongst the team. They then started to understand the scope within the global supply chain and the size and scale of the task ahead. Once they had achieved this they could them prioritise their activities and be clear on decision criteria, remove, replace and reuse. If the item cannot be reused it must be recycled, all the time tracking their progress. Giles then explained the challenges that they face when fighting against plastic pollution. One being funding alternatives to plastic. Third party companies and the supply chain which delivers products to Sky are still shipping their products with unnecessary plastic and haven’t yet joined the fight against plastic pollution but by working together a real difference can be made.


Before a quick coffee break Professor Tamara Galloway from Exeter University explained bioaccumulation and biological effects of micro and nano plastics. The average person consumes 11,000 particles per year from seafood, but we have no idea if it causes any harm to our health. When studying plankton, it was found that the more microplastic that was added to the culture then the less algae they would feed on. This reduced fecundity after 10 days, changes faecal pellets altering the carbon cycle in the ocean and transported contaminants to the ocean floor. . When focusing on microplastics we are underestimating the number of particles that can be found as when a smaller net is used more plastic particles (nano plastics) are found. From a study using oysters, at 3 days old they preferred the nano plastics but once they reached 24 days old their habits had changed. This makes us unaware of what animals are at risk to different shapes and sizes of microplastics. It was found that the nano plastics were moving from the gut into the tissues because they were being processed differently.

Rowan Byrne from Mott MacDonald gave a presentation entitled ‘Are there marine plastic solutions in many sectors?’. Mott Macdonald are a global engineering, management and development consultancy focused on guiding clients through many of the planet’s most intricate challenges. The common theme within the sector is plastics. He then focused on the waste water treatment works. There are opportunities for research and development for investigations and coastal transmissions of plastics to marine species, mapping flow of microplastics through the environment through WWTW sites and identification of the main types of plastics seen at these sites.

Barry Turner from the British Plastics Federation spoke about industry and stakeholders working together on marine litter. He started by identifying the sources of marine litter and that even though it is a global problem the solutions need to be more localised. Different solutions are needed in different parts of the world such as a lack of waste management systems, careless disposable packaging or waste lost at sea. An event by the British Plastics Federation was held at the beginning of February where retailers and NGOs work together with the industry to create an appropriate plan to significantly reduce leakage of litter into the marine environment. This was the creation of the pledge on marine litter. They hope that the pledge will lead to co-ordinated actions on education, littering, waste and behavioural change. For those items most likely to be littered examining whether there are better alternatives. Ensuring future producer responsibility is more strategic in directing funding and supports the changes we all need to see. Promoting effective interventions in waste management to developing nations as well as in the UK.

Before breaking for lunch each of the organisations in the solutions showcase were invited to give a 90 second pitch about either their product or solutions the company has produced. The Cambridge institute for sustainability leadership work with government, finance and business to help create solutions for eliminating the future use of plastic in packaging from the soft drinks supply chain. Alice Horton explained the UK Microplastics Network, a platform created in November 2017 to share knowledge between academics and stakeholders. Results from research carried out by academics doesn’t always reach the people who need it. Iotic Labs have created a software database in which all types of data can be accessed and shared with others. Envirocomms are an organisation that campaign to inspire change. One campaign is to ensure correct recycling, helping the public to have a better understanding of what items to put in each bin. Richard Lampitt from the National Oceanography Centre explained their microplastic research. Working with Atlantos they tried to answer the fundamental questions about the extent and fate of microplastic pollution in the Atlantic Ocean. They used Spatio-temporal sampling of microplastics from water column and sediments. The Seabin project was launched to help clean the oceans. The seabin floats in the surface to remove any floating debris from ports and mariners. Recycling technologies provide a machine and a service which turns most end-of-life plastic back into a low sulphur hydrocarbon called Plaxx. A company based in Cambridge called BeeBee Wraps have created reusable beeswax food wraps offering a sustainable alternative to plastic packaging. It is similar to clingfilm, can be replenished in the oven and lasts up to a year. As polystyrene is a main pollutant and expensive to recycle a new product using mycelium fraction has been produced. This fungal-based biodegradable packaging is lightweight, shock absorbent and water resistant. An upcycling company, Flute, demonstrated how they manufacture a variety of products from waste with an everlasting life. Once a consumer no longer wants the product they recollect it and resupply it. Milkdispensers was designed to remove plastic packaging from milk as recycling milk bottles is made difficult by the different coloured lids used for the different milk types.


The afternoon session consisted of an open panel discussion on science policy challenges in polar conservation and management. This is part of the workshop series from the British Antarctic Survey and Cambridge Conservation Initiative. It was designed to discuss key topics with experts working in different regions and disciplines. Things discussed was the need to transform the linear system to a circular system. How more bans or taxes should be introduced as from previous ones it is clear that they are making a difference. The need for ideas on how to fix the problem rather than move away from plastic and ensuring that global, national and corporate are aligning in the same direction. The concluding statement was that due to a surge in interest it is important that we don’t waste this opportunity to make a change. Unless we work together to identify paths to go down and the quickest way to solve the problem as this opportunity could be wasted.

Analysis of Litter from Beaches in Northumbria

Several items of litter were photographed and taken from two beaches in Northumbria, so that the polymer type could be determined. Photographs were taken with a scale before Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) analysis, any fibrous items were also examined using polarised light microscopy.

AOO1, AOO2 & AOO3 (top left) AOO8 (top right) AOO16 (bottom left) and  AOO22 (bottom right)

The results of the FTIR analysis of the plastic removed from the beach were produced using the Hummel polymer library to compare the plastics found to reference data to give an indication of the type of plastic present. These identifications were also verified by comparing to literature values and assigning peaks. There was a large quantity of fishing wire removed from the beach clean-up, the majority of which (n=10) were identified as a biopolymer of polyamide 6 and polyamide 6,6 otherwise known as nylon 6 and nylon 66, and one fishing was identified as polyether urethane. Most of the fishing wire also had small sections of plastic encasing the polyamide wire, the majority (n=3) of these were identified in one instance. There were also two beads found on the fishing wire, one of which was identified as polystyrene and the other was identified as polyethylene. More samples were also collected from a secondary beach in Northumbria, the samples taken from this beach were principally rope samples. The library identified three of them as poly(Ethylene:Propylene:Diene) which is a type of synthetic rubber, although the secondary match polyethylene which also has a high match, due to this and the result of comparing to literature values for both polymers and peak assignment, the rope samples were identified as polyethylene as opposed to Poly(Ethylene:Propylene:Diene). One sample was also identified as polypropylene.

FTIR Result from AOO1 identified as Polyamide 6 & Polyamide 6,6

FTIR Result from AOO2 identified as Alkyd Resin

FTIR Result from AOO3 identified as Polystyrene

FTIR Result from AOO8 identified as Polyether Urethane

FTIR Result from AOO16 identified as Polyethylene

FTIR Result from AOO22 identified as Polypropylene

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) imaging was carried out on some of the samples taken from the beaches in Northumbria to observe the level of degradation that the plastic had undergone. AOO2 and AOO4 were both taken from AOO1 and identified as Alkyd resin. However, AOO4 had been more sheltered than AOO2 and as such would have degraded less. This can also be seen in the SEM images as AOO4 looks as if it has only begun to degrade and a slight mottling effect can be seen on the surface. AOO2 has more pronounced pits forming on the surface and the areas around the edges show areas that are starting to break away from the plastic surface forming microplastics. Two of the legs from AOO9, the fishing tackle, were observed. The legs were chosen as they differed in colour and there is a potential that they are a different state of degradation. There were very little differences between them. However, the leg that had a darker colouration demonstrated more cracking and larger areas of degradation than the other leg. The fishing wire AOO1 was also observed, the wire showed a high level of degradation, with a ragged surface and protruding bits of plastic that could break away and produce microplastics.

SEM Image of AOO1

SEM Images of AOO2

SEM Images of AOO4

SEM Images of AOO9

Modesty, warmth, artificial intelligence, forensic science and the monitoring of marine-litter pollution


Andrew R W Jackson, Hugh F D Jackson, Claire M B Gwinnett and Mohamed Sedky    *C.Gwinnett@staffs.ac.uk (Project leader and main contact)

We surround ourselves with textile fibres. Literally. These are the miniscule building blocks from which our clothes are made. Think of a world without them. Not very comfortable, is it? They keep us warm and dry, and we use them to signal to the world who we are and where we belong. They also preserve our modesty. To be without them is the stuff of nightmares.

In the modern world, plastics, including polyester, nylon, and polypropylene, are used to make vast amounts of textile fibres. These synthetic particles can be made to mimic the look and feel of natural fibres but outperform them in many ways. They are fashioned into a variety of high-quality products, including clothes, carpets and ropes.

Pile of Clothes.

Nothing is permanent. This includes the clothes we wear. From the moment we buy them, they are falling apart. Wherever we go and whatever we do, we each leave a trail of fibres from these clothes, and from the textile products that we have touched. This trail can be used by forensic scientists to infer our past whereabouts and actions. To do this we need knowledge of how readily fibres are moved from place to place. This is gained through what are known as transfer and persistence studies. During these, scientists, armed with strong magnifying glasses or low-power microscopes, count thousands of fibres by hand. This is time consuming, laborious and can lead to mistakes.

One of the principles of scientific studies is that they should be repeatable. In recent years, this has been developed into the concept of reproducible research, the goal of which “…is to tie specific instructions to data analysis and experimental data so that scholarship can be recreated, better understood and verified.” (https://cran.r-project.org/web/views/ReproducibleResearch.html, accessed on 9 Jan 2018). Accordingly, where ethically possible, scientists are encouraged to report not only their methods and findings but also their raw data and the computer code that they have used to process them. This has its practical limitations, however. In transfer and persistence studies, it is feasible to report the raw fibre counts. It would even be possible to publish images of the fibres that were counted. However, currently, it is unlikely that the fibres shown in any such images would be re-counted en masse, as to do so would be prohibitively time consuming.

One of the reasons that synthetic fibres are valued is their high resistance to damage. This means that they can be made into strong, hard-wearing textiles and ropes. However, even these fall apart. This means that their constituent fibres enter the natural environment where they are very slow to degrade.

Each time we wash our clothes, huge numbers of fibres fall from them into the water and are washed down the drain (just think of the fluff that collects in a tumble dryer’s filter). We now know that these water-borne fibres find their way through sewage works, down rivers and into the sea, where they are eaten by fish and other animals (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep33997). However, this knowledge has only been gleaned recently and, currently, there are no standard scientific procedures for the monitoring of this type of pollution.

We at Staffordshire University are developing artificial intelligence systems of fibre counting for use in both pollution monitoring and forensic research. Our motivation for this is threefold:

  • To reduce the labour required.
  • To extend the reach of reproducible research.
  • To produce standardised procedures.

Real Life Fibres (left) and Computer Generated Fibres (right)

We have started this work by automating the counting of fluorescent fibres. These were retrieved from a variety of surfaces during a forensic method validation study carried out for a police force here in the UK. These fibres had been counted by hand during that study and so we can be sure how many were present. The approach taken to automation involves computer vision and machine learning. Images were taken of the fibres and they were then counted by a model created by a convolutional neural network. Previously, this model had been trained, using computer-generated images, to recognise fibre ends. The number of such ends were then counted by computer in the images of the real fibres and divided by two to give the model’s count of fibres present. We have then compared the model’s count with the known number of fibres that can be seen in the images (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A graph illustrating the performance of the fibre counting convolutional neural network model used when tested against images containing known number of fibres that had been counted by hand. The blue line is not the line of best fit. Instead, it is there to show where all the points would have been found had the model produced exactly the same counts as found by a human.

Full technical details of the work to date is available online (https://hughfdjackson.com/machine-learning/automatic-fibre-counting-with-machine-learning/ and https://github.com/hughfdjackson/fluorescent-fibre-counting). The code written is given on the second of those sites, as are instructions explaining how to set it up so that you can run it yourself if you would like to do so. As can be seen from those sites, the work is still under development and the results are not yet as accurate as can be achieved by a human, but good progress has been made. We will be building on that work over the coming months, but you are welcome to take the code and develop it for yourself. If you do so, we would be very interested to know of the progress that you make with it. Our plans include the refinement of the approach taken to date to improve its accuracy and the application of that method to the counting of fibres and other microplastics from marine environments.

We also plan to draw on our previous research here at Staffordshire University in areas of computer vision and artificial intelligence (www.spectral360.com). Our research team has developed breakthrough computer vision technology (Spectral-360®) which emulates human vision to detect camouflaged objects under rapid illumination changes and in the presence of severe environmental hindering conditions. Field testing demonstrates the new technology’s ability to detect events missed by a vigilant operator. Four patents (UK, PCT and US) were successfully filed and granted filing numbers. Our US patent was granted in November 2015. This prior research has already created tools that allow computers to automatically detect, count and track objects from their images, and do so even when the lighting conditions change or when the camera used is swapped for another. Our intention is to use this to extend the current study to the counting of marine-litter from images captured by drones and of microfibres and other micro-litter extracted from aqueous environments.

We depend on textile fibres for our wellbeing and surround ourselves with them. They are used to help solve crime but this work is limited by it time-consuming nature. Also, those fibres enter the seas in unknown but vast numbers, as do other forms of marine-litter pollution. Our challenge is to develop automated systems to allow:

  • Better use to be made of the forensic value of fibres and
  • The standardised monitoring of marine-litter pollution to improve its  quantification, identification and interpretation.

Acknowledgements.                                                                                                Thanks are due to Zoe Jones for collecting and counting the fibres used in the work to date, Jolien Casteel for taking photographs of fibres and to Chelsie Maxwell for her technical work on the website.