Exploring how beach litter has changed over the past 50 years using drones and phone apps

Loughborough University researchers will assess how coastal litter from the ocean has changed over the past half-century in a unique project that brings together local heritage, drones, and mobile phone apps.

Dr Tom Stanton, of the Department of Geography and Environment, and Melissa Schiele, a PhD student in the School of Mechanical, Electrical, and Manufacturing Engineering, have received an innovation grant from the UK marine conservation charity Sea-Changers to explore how litter has changed in the Isle of Skye.

The pair are collaborating with local organisations and residents on the Scottish island to explore how the distribution and characteristics of litter on beaches have changed over the last 50 years, as well as investigate the presence of microplastic pollution and textile fibres in coastal waters.

The one-year-long study involves gathering oral histories and conducting community beach litter surveys using mobile phone litter-logging apps.

Melissa will also take to the air with her drones to bolster and enhance the findings of the ground survey and engage local people with UAV technologies.

These important steps will contribute to an innovative new environmental surveying toolkit that will empower residents in Skye and beyond to monitor their beaches.

Melissa, who also conducts a variety of drone-based research in the Maldives, commented: “I'm thrilled at the opportunity to work with Dr Tom Stanton to trial this exciting 'hands-on' multidisciplinary approach to data gathering and citizen science.

“I'll be extending the techniques I'm working on in the Maldives to the shores and people of Skye, to see if locally-led drone use can fit into the long-term monitoring strategies on the island."

The ‘50 years of litter on Skye’ project looks to build on the work of the late organic polymer chemist Professor Gerald Scott.

Professor Scott was one of the first people to identify the ocean as a prominent source of litter on the beaches following his observations in the Isle of Skye in 1972.

Dr Stanton commented: “It is important to reflect on Scott’s work because in his publication he foreshadows the magnitude of pollution from litter we now find ourselves faced with.

“Scott’s publication was also hopeful of technological solutions to the problem of plastic pollution which, unfortunately, still have not materialised.

“We want to learn from the local knowledge on the island, both the dynamics of pollution in the present, but also in living memory, dating back to Scott’s visit to the island if possible.

“Local communities have regionally specific knowledge that can provide unique insights into the environments that geographical research studies.

“This is something we will be keen to tap into, and it provides the project with a unique mixed methodology that will consider both the beach pollution on the island and what it means to the island’s community.

“I am over the moon that Sea-Changers has awarded us funding for this project.”