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Plastic pirate study proves major waste problem affecting German rivers

December 19th, 2018

Plastic waste and cigarette butts appear in almost all German rivers - left behind by people who use the riverbank as a recreational area. A first scientific publication on the Citizen Science project "Plastikpiraten" (plastic pirates) now provides figures on the litter problem on German riverbanks. Plastikpiraten is a joint project. The Kieler Forschungswerkstatt, a joint institution of Kiel University and the IPN, is responsible for Schleswig-Holstein's participation in the project.

The data show that, on average, 0.5 pieces of litter occur per square meter of shore area and about one third of the litter consists of plastic. Apart from plastic waste, cigarette butts were among the most frequent finds. Glass shards, pointed metal objects, used hygiene articles and other materials that can be dangerous for children and adults were discovered on almost every riverbank. "The figures show that we also have a litter problem in Germany on rivers," says Katrin Knickmeier from the Kiel Forschungswerkstatt. "At some point, this litter also ends up in the sea."

According to the participating students, the main sources of waste at almost all locations are people who visit the river and leave garbage behind. Larger accumulations of rubbish, e.g. accumulations of disposable plastic dishes, food packaging made of plastic or leftovers from picnics and barbecues also indicate this.

The results from 2016 and 2017 are published in the journal "Environmental Pollution". Prior to publication, the received data records underwent detailed examination by the Kieler Forschungswerkstatt. "Data from Citizen Science projects are often questioned and must therefore be closely monitored so that they gain acceptance in the scientific community. That's why various data points had to be sorted out," says Tim Kiessling, a researcher at the Kiel Forschungswerkstatt who evaluated the data. The Kieler Forschungswerkstatt and the Científicos de la Basura ("waste scientists") in Chile developed the method. The latter investigate (plastic) garbage since 2007 with the support of Citizen Science. The research data is collected in Germany on the project website and evaluated and checked by the Kiel Forschungswerkstatt in close cooperation with Prof. Martin Thiel of the Universidad Católica del Norte in Coquimbo.

"Citizen Science projects, however, not only generate scientific data, but also provide expertise and insight on how science works. In this way, we hope to communicate that science is accessible to everyone," says Katrin Kruse, who accompanies the project pedagogically. "Participation in the plastic pirates also allows participants to reflect on and rethink their own consumer behavior," says Katrin Kruse.

Linda Mederake, who coordinates the action for Ecologic Institute, emphasizes: "Initial studies indicate that Citizen Science projects can generate long-term interest in a topic among students. That is why we are all the more pleased that the project will also be funded in 2019". The next opportunity to participate will be in May and June 2019.