Microplastics FAQ

Photo: Andrew Burr
Photo: KT Miller
What does it mean to collect samples for the freshwater microplastics project?

As a global microplastics volunteer, you will collect a water sample from a body of freshwater of your choice.  At the most basic level, this means filling a bottle of water and mailing it to our scientist, Abigail Barrows, in Maine.  However we need to make sure you are following our protocols to a T before you do that.  So you’ll need to sign up online and complete a few simple steps before you head out to collect water for us.

Why do I need to sign up and follow the protocols?
For scientific data to be useable by other scientists as well as key decision makers, it has to stand up a certain level of quality. By signing up and following the Adventure Scientists’ protocols exactly, you will ensure that your sample can be used in our data set. If you don’t follow the protocols, we can’t use your sample because it lowers the quality and reliability of the entire dataset. Additionally, if you don’t sign up at all and send us samples, we will not use them.
Does it cost anything?
You don’t have to pay any fees or buy any materials to volunteer with Adventure Scientists. The only costs you might incur are in shipping your samples. We’d love for you to consider this a donation to this research, but if you would rather be reimbursed, just let us know.
Do I need any fancy equipment?
Nope! All you really need is a sample bottle that you can find near you and ideally a thermometer and smart phone if you have one. You’ll receive more details once you sign up.
Will you send me a sample bottle?
No. To reduce the environmental impacts and cost of shipping bottles out to you, we ask that you find your own bottle to use. Specific details of what bottles will work will be given to you after you sign up.
Will you tell me where to sample?
No, that’s part of the adventure as a worldwide volunteer! Our main goal in 2017 is to expand our data set by sampling from remote freshwater sources. What body of water you chose is up to you; it could be an alpine lake in the Cascades of Washington, a glacial stream in the Andes, or a lake in Thailand. As an organization we pride ourselves in collecting data from remote and hard-to-reach locations worldwide. Be inspired by your own adventures.
What’s my expedition name?
The sign-up form requires you to enter an “Expedition Name,” but you may or not already have one in mind. If you are taking a personal trip, go ahead and create a short name for yourself. Each sample needs a related expedition name so we can keep track of what is coming from where. Whatever you pick, make it something you can remember, you’ll need this info later.
What if I’m already out traveling, is it too late to sign up to sample on this trip?
If you have access to the internet over the next few days, you should be able to get up to speed quickly. We’ll need to send you a few things via email, have you download an app, and you’ll need to access the protocols online (and ideally print them). Once that is done, you’ll be ready to go!
What happens to my samples once I mail them in?
Microplastics Researcher Abby Barrows receives them in her lab in Stonington, Maine. First, she matches the the data you entered in the field with the water sample in its bottle. Note: If your data isn’t entered correctly before the sample arrives, we won’t be able to use it. Next, she vacuum pumps the sample over a gridded .45 micron filter. After the sample has dried for a minimum of 24 hours the counting process begins. Using a microscope at 40x magnification, Barrows looks for pieces of microplastic (<5mm). The filter is systematically counted, moving along the grid lines, and each plastic piece is categorized based on size, shape and color.[/et_pb_accordion_item][et_pb_accordion_item title=" How do you know it’s plastic?" _builder_version="4.14.4" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}" open="off"]

Not only does Barrows have a trained eye, even writing a guide to identifying these plastics, but she also runs digestions of many of the samples in the lab to confirm that it isn’t organic material.  This means she applies an acid solution to the sample.  If the particle is made of something natural, like wool or seaweed, it will dissolve in the acid.  Plastic is stronger and does not dissolve.  Some of our samples are even sent off to other labs where technicians use micro spectroscopy to determine exactly what kind of plastic a particle is made of.  

How do you know the plastic was in the water and didn’t come from the air or the clothing that the volunteer was wearing?
All of our volunteers are asked to take precautions to reduce the likelihood of this happening, including not wearing synthetic clothing and noting the color of any plastics that might come in contact with the sample, rinsing their hands and the bottles thoroughly before sampling, and capping the bottle while it is still underwater.

In the lab, Barrows runs blanks as a control in alignment with accepted scientific practices, limits each sample’s exposure to air, and works to keep the lab free of unnecessary plastics. In the event that a sample contains contamination, we note this and do not include it in the larger data set.

What will my sample data be used for?
We are building one of the largest, most geographically diverse data sets on microplastic pollution to date. In addition to publication in a scientific journal, this work will be used to inform decision makers about the realities of microplastic pollution globally, offer insights which may guide and inspire innovative solutions from individuals and corporations, and can be built upon by future research.
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