Staffordshire University’s Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Department (CJF) has been conducting research in all aspects of forensic science since it transformed from a chemistry department 16 years ago. The CJF department has extensive national and international collaborations with forensic providers, police forces and organisations working in specialist evidence and particulates, including fibres and plastics. The CJF department strives for world-leading research and collaborative approaches to solving real-world problems.
The work we do sits at the intersection of forensic science, data science, machine learning and the monitoring and amelioration of the pollution of the environment with man-made litter. There is increasing global recognition that marine litter is a problem. It has been shown to be a threat to wildlife, ecosystems and economies, and a potential risk to human health (https://oceanconference.un.org/commitments/?id=14415). It can be transported by ocean currents over long distances and is found in all marine environments. This issue can affect organisms and habitats through ingestion of litter items (e.g. microplastics) or entanglement, resulting in death and/or severe suffering or by acting as a vector for transport and thereby facilitating invasion by alien species. It also carries significant implications for human welfare, making it a complex multidisciplinary problem. It impacts negatively on vital economic sectors such as tourism, fisheries, aquaculture and energy supply, bringing economic losses to individuals, enterprises and communities. And yet there is currently no standardised and cost-effective way of monitoring and quantifying the scale of this global concern.
It is now known that microplastics in the form of synthetic fibres are a significant form of marine litter pollution. Fibres are the building blocks from which textile fabrics are made. They are readily dislodged from clothing and slow to degrade. When textiles are washed, huge numbers of fibres enter the water, find their way through sewage works, down rivers and into the sea, where they are ingested by fish and other animals (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep33997). Fibres are also lost from each item of clothing when it is brought into contact with another object. Forensic scientists have taken advantage of this fact for more than 50 years. Sophisticated methods of fibres evidence analysis and evaluation have been created by which fibres recovered from the environment can be used to infer a person’s past whereabouts and actions from the trail of fibres that they leave behind. However, forensic fibres analysis is laborious and, consequently, often deemed to not be cost effective.
Here at Staffordshire University we are actively researching efficient strategies and technologies aimed at producing step-change improvements in many aspects (including the cost-effectiveness) of the analysis of both litter pollution and forensic fibres evidence. This is possible because the problems to be overcome share much in common. We are tackling this issue through a multi-disciplinary approach, drawing on our expertise in machine learning, computer vision, environmental science and data analytics, and forensic methods of contamination reduction, plastics analysis and evidence evaluation.
Our key aims are as follows;
- To conduct internationally excellent research that impacts the work conducted in marine litter investigations and criminal casework.
- To use a multidisciplinary approach to solve real issues in the analysis of litter pollution (including microfibres) of the aquatic environment and forensic fibres analysis by incorporating expertise in machine learning, data science, image processing, environmental science, textile analysis and traditional forensic fibre evidence examination and evaluation.
We will achieve these goals by the following objectives;
- Understand the issues surrounding macro- and micro- litter pollution of the aquatic environment by working collaboratively with relevant domain experts in the public, private and third sectors, including academics in other universities and policy makers.
- Develop innovative methods that can be applied to both marine and freshwater litter monitoring initiatives, and forensic fibre examinations.
- Maintain existing national and international partnerships and create new collaborations to have global impact and share best practice.
- Understand how education plays a role in the global understanding of litter pollution and from this create a sustainable public engagement programme.
- Identify future areas of research and technological solutions in both forensic fibre examination and evidence evaluation, and the monitoring and amelioration of litter pollution of the aquatic environment.