Who Dr Michelle Blewitt, AUSMAP Program Director, Total Environment Centre

What The Australian Microplastic Assessment Project (AUSMAP) is a world-first, national citizen science program that empowers people of all ages to document microplastic pollution. An immersive experience, participants are educated on the prevalence of microplastics around our waterways and trained to collect scientifically valid data that is used to design effective mitigation strategies for plastic pollution.

Co-winner of the 2021 Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science

AUSMAP, winner of the 2021 Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science

AUSMAP Program Director Dr. Michelle Blewitt (centre), with AUSMAP Research Director Dr. Scott Wilson (left) and Operations Manager, Kylie Tymoszuk (right), near a stormwater drain sampling site in Dee Why. In this project, AUSMAP has trailed and successfully implemented this source reduction method. The location of Dee Why lagoon as a microplastics hotspot was determined based on citizen science data collected by local community and high-school students.

Image: Michelle Blewitt
© Michelle Blewitt

Tell us a little bit about AUSMAP

AUSMAP, a project by the Total Environment Centre, is a nationwide microplastic program using citizen science to document microplastic pollution around Australia. In partnership with Macquarie University, AUSMAP has developed into Australia’s leading microplastic program, and a global first, that provides a fully immersive experience in microplastic collection and analysis.

The program educates, engages and empowers citizens of all ages to identify microplastic hotspots, finds effective remediation strategies and create ambassadors for long-term behavioural change, leading to the sustainability of the project for all levels of the community. AUSMAP builds ambassadors for behaviour change and through this capacity building approach ensures the sustainability of the project into the future. This work enables communities and government to implement behaviour change, regulate industry, and develop better waste management systems.

Plastic pollution is now recognised as one of the world’s most critical environmental issues. Can you tell us about the scope of it?

There are a few pathways through which plastic can pollute our land and waterways. Plastic production globally is projected to increase — more than doubling to 756 million tons by 20501 — as it is durable, economical to produce and easy to distribute. It is also deceptively difficult to recycle certain types of plastic, especially without the correct recycling infrastructure. Litter prevention strategies can only do so much, which means we are seeing 8 million tonnes2 of plastic entering the ocean every year, globally.

Plastic never breaks down, only up.

Plastic never breaks down, only up. On land and in our oceans and rivers, plastic breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics (pieces less than 5mm long), until they become invisible to the human eye, called nanoplastics. Among the various impacts of plastics on animals, including ingestion or entanglement, microplastics play a particularly dark role. As microplastics break up into the environment, they become virtually impossible to keep track of or remove.

At this point, it would be hard to find a species that has not been impacted by microplastics3. This can lead to starvation in smaller animals and as a result, species-loss. In addition, there is also the worrisome effect of increased levels of toxic chemicals leaching into these animals. The full impact of microplastics requires more research, but what we do know is that this human-caused pollution is not positively impacting our marine environment.

What actions can people take on an individual level to reduce microplastic pollution?

Microplastic pollution starts with the more well-known plastics that we’re all familiar with, including take-away containers, straws, cutlery and coffee cups. However, it is now getting easier to help fight plastic pollution at the individual level. When you buy a new product or get takeaway, consider the materials — are they reusable, are they recyclable or compostable and do you really need to buy it brand new? When you have takeaway, you can opt for no plastic bag, plastic straw, plastic or disposable cup and choose to dine in whenever you can. People can also join local grass root organisations to take actions in removing plastic pollution from their local beach or waterway. It’s a good way to see the extent of pollution, the real issues — the problem is smaller than you think!

Even better, become an AUSMAP citizen scientist or join us at one of our community days to help us collect this all-important data — you can find our latest events here. If you do know of a microplastic hotspot, working together with local councils and communities, AUSMAP can help identify the source and assist with stopping microplastics from entering our waterways all together. Increased knowledge and capacity of communities to ‘take charge’ of the plastic pollution problem in local waterways and engage in positive litter prevention and waste management strategies, is critical to solving the global plastic issue. AUSMAP is contributing to this long-term positive change.

AUSMAP, winner of the 2021 Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science

Community members are being taught the AUSMAP citizen science method during a community event. During these events, participants use a scientific method to collect microplastics along shorelines. Microplastics are collected in a vial from quadrats for further analysis, which might include hard plastic fragments, fibres, resin pellets or foam.

Image: Marijs Vrancken
© Marijs Vrancken

Can you tell us a little bit about the AUSMAP citizen science community and the work that they do?

The AUSMAP citizen science community has grown immensely in the last few years, with over 800 volunteers trained and accredited in the AUSMAP method. Every day we receive microplastic samples from communities, clean up groups, council staff or school groups that are then analysed by our team of scientists to add to our Microplastic Hotspot Map.

Our dedicated volunteer citizen scientists provide incredible detail in their reports and remain committed to sampling their local communities into the future.

Our dedicated volunteer citizen scientists provide incredible detail in their reports and remain committed to sampling their local communities into the future. Some volunteers in South Australia, for example, are spending thousands of hours to help sort and analyse samples. With the help of a core group of amazing volunteers, we identified close to 800,000 microplastic pieces per square metre in a South Australian catchment. Without these volunteers, we wouldn’t have been able to collect this data for the local council, enabling them to implement mitigation strategies that stop more microplastics from going into the waterways.

What have been some of the most significant outcomes of AUSMAP to date?

Most of all, winning a Eureka Prize! In addition, there have been quite a few significant outcomes for AUSMAP in three short years. We have been successful in a number of national funding opportunities, which has enabled us to reach more and more people. In 2020, AUSMAP was awarded the Keep Australia Beautiful NSW Coastal and Waterways Protection Award. More recently, AUSMAP was included in the NSW Plastic Plan, in which our program — the only non-profit organisation — was highlighted as a key study to track progress on the reduction of plastic pollution. We are helping guide governmental decision making on plastic pollution into the future.

AUSMAP continues to grow its reach, both nationally and internationally. Since the program commenced in mid-2018, our team has achieved the following:

  • 3 million microplastics removed and counting
  • Over 350 samples collected from across Australia — from Christmas Island, to Thursday Island, to Norfolk Island, across the sea to Timor and all the way to Chile!
  • 55 AUSMAP national training events
  • Over 800 citizen scientists trained
  • 8,000 participants
  • 40,000 citizen science volunteer hours

AUSMAP, Total Environment Centre and Macquarie University

AUSMAP Research Director Dr. Scott Wilson (right), explains how to find and identify microplastics in a sample collected from Manly Cove Beach during one of the monthly community events.

Image: Supplied by AUSMAP

What does winning a Eureka Prize mean to you?

Winning a Eureka Prize is a huge honour. We are so proud to see our program, which we are so passionate about, recognised by the Australian scientific community. Being recognised via a prize for Innovation in Citizen Science means that our dedicated volunteers have won the prize with us. After winning this award, we are more determined to continue mapping microplastic hotspots that will guide key decision makers in the long-term and end our toxic love affair with plastic.