Citizen science provides a way for individuals and communities to gather valuable data that adds to global data sets and can inform policy, but starting your own project can seem daunting and it can be difficult to know where to start. At this Hub event, eXXpedition Ambassador and Living River Foundation founder Tanya Ferry and Madeleine Berg from Fidra and The Great Nurdle Hunt shared their experiences. We want to share some of Madeleine’s top tips for using The Great Nurdle Hunt model to integrate citizen science into your work. Next week, we will learn more from Tanya Ferry who launched her own citizen science project on the Thames in London.

The Great Nurdle Hunt

Madeleine Berg joined us from environmental charity Fidra. Fidra is the organisation behind The Great Nurdle Hunt, which was launched back in 2012 to explore nurdle pollution in the Firth of Forth, Scotland. Since then it has turned into a global movement with citizen science data being submitted from all over the world. Fidra are also taking an active role developing solutions to nurdle pollution at a national and international level.

North Queensferry. Photo credit: Alasdair Neilson

What is a nurdle?

A nurdle is a small pellet of plastic approximately 2-3mm in diameter. These are pre-production pellets which are used as the building blocks to most plastic materials and they leak out all along the plastics supply chain in their billions. The escape of nurdles into the environment is often most associated with loss during ocean shipping, but Madeleine explained that actually they are not just found on beaches but also along rivers and in lakes due to leakage from different sources. Once loose, they pollute the natural environment, accumulate toxins and can harm wildlife that mistake them for food (they are a similar size and shape to fish eggs!). 

What is the purpose of The Great Nurdle Hunt?

The aim of The Great Nurdle Hunt is to build evidence of nurdle pollution globally, raise international awareness and hold industry to account. The instructions for collecting data are deliberately easy to follow with minimal time and equipment requirements to encourage a large number of people to take part. Nurdle hunts can easily be integrated into personal or community clean ups, or can be used as standalone events to engage others in the challenges of plastic pollution. The data that is submitted is brought by Fidra to industry and decision-makers to work on stopping the pollution problem at source. It is also available for anyone to use, and it has been utilised effectively by scientists in research and campaigners in lobbying for changes in law. Once a year, Fidra run The Great Global Nurdle Hunt, an event aimed at getting everyone to the beach over the same month to raise awareness internationally – this year the results from this event, run over the whole month of October, will be showcased by Fidra to international decision-makers at COP26.

Photo credit: A Rocha Kenya

What are the challenges with this type of citizen science? 

Just like any type of citizen science there are challenges to carrying out research like this. Because of the inclusive nature of the data collection for The Great Nurdle Hunt, Fidra does not have close control over the methods of collection, which means there are limitations to the data use in some research. Working on the solutions to nurdle loss with industry is slow, complicated and time-consuming work, but is vital to the long-term impact of the research. As it is an international problem, it can be complicated to connect to everyone working on nurdle pollution and to follow up with everyone to see how they are utilising the data – this means that it can be tricky to directly track impact of the project even though it is known to be widespread. 

How can you start a citizen science project contributing to The Great Nurdle Hunt?

It’s really easy to set up your own independent nurdle hunt or add a hunt to your existing clean up projects. Visit The Great Nurdle Hunt website to find out more.

More about SHiFT Hub Events

eXXpedition runs regular events for our community and beyond. Keep an eye on our social channels for updates on upcoming public events, and browse our blog to find out the highlights of our community events and keep up with eXXpedition news.

Thank you to 11th Hour Racing who are supporting this work.