Plastic pollution scientists at Bangor University are gearing up to publish the findings from the largest citizen science project of its kind in the UK.

The Waterloggers initiative has seen volunteer from the wild swimming community collecting water samples from rivers, lakes, canals and the coastline. They were subsequently sent to The Plastic Research Centre of Wales (PRC) at Bangor University, where researchers are busy analysing the specimens.

Waterloggers was conceived by former teacher Laura Owen Sanderson, who lives in Gwynedd and now runs the We Swim Wild organisation.

“What’s special about Waterloggers is that it encompasses water sampling from a very wide variety of sources. Our volunteers collected their specimens from all sorts of locations up and down the country and stored them in empty wine bottles.

“Each bottle of water takes around an hour to analyse so the process of looking at hundreds of bottles worth of water has been lengthy. But we are very excited at what the research might uncover.”

“With our data, we aim to lobby the UK government to classify microplastics as an emerging contaminant. Without the research, doing that would be very tricky.”

The National Wales: Water samples from the Afon Dwyryd which will be studied for the research projectWater samples from the Afon Dwyryd which will be studied for the research project

Nicola Harries from Cardiff swam for the City of Cardiff Swimming Club and Great Britain as a child. As an adult, she fell in love with surfing and ocean swimming. When she heard about Waterloggers, she couldn’t wait to sign up.

“It was important for me to collect a sample from the River Taf in Cardiff because I want people to wake up and realise what’s flowing through the Welsh capital.

“I went to Radyr weir with my neighbour for support, put my wetsuit on with my booties, and I waded in to the Taf with my wine bottles. I got a few funny looks from passers by!

“What we’re doing is raising awareness of what’s in people’s local waterways. And that is directly connected to the water that they drink and the water that their kids play in.”

The National Wales: Nicola Harries with her samples from the River Taf at Radyr for the waterloggers research projectNicola Harries with her samples from the River Taf at Radyr for the waterloggers research project

Nia Jones is a PhD student who specialises in microplastics research at Bangor University’s PRC, where a number of pioneering discoveries in the field have already been made.

“Our scientists have unearthed microplastics on the top of Snowdon and within the waterways of our national parks, which are meant to be pristine places. Those are just two discoveries we’ve made at Bangor but thanks to Laura’s work and We Swim Wild, we’re expecting much more data to come about from the Waterloggers project.

“The purpose of all the research we do at PRC is to demonstrate our direct impact upon the environment. It’s not a far away problem in the middle of the ocean. We are affecting and changing nature underneath our feet because of our consumption trends as a society.

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“So many items are now made from plastic. And with the PPE crisis hitting us at the moment, we’re seeing how we can impact the environment in a very short space of time.

“Plastic has only been in widespread use for just over fifty years but within that timescale, we have even impacted upon the geological record because scientists are now discovering plastic in sediment. To do that in just half a century is quite shocking.”

In June, Ms Owen Sanderson is piloting a new project in Gwynedd’s schools which will see pupils being taken swimming and snorkelling in the sea as well as participating in microplastics research on the beach and in classrooms. If successful, it is hoped that similar projects could be rolled out across Wales.

“We have two machines which use a filter to show the microplastics present within the sand and water. We use those on the beach itself. And then back in school, we’ll be able to do some science lab work with them on the topic too.

“The whole point is to try to connect them to this issue and instead of learning about it, actually participating in it. Often, even in coastal communities, there’s a disconnect between people and the ocean. I’m hoping that our schools project will begin to change that and bring children closer to nature so that they realise how important it is to protect it.”

Depending upon the findings of the Waterloggers research, We Swim Wild will once again be taking to the water in a second wave of sampling this summer. People who want to become volunteers are urged to contact the organisers via the website.

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