Fair winds for Oceaneye and Sail & Explore’s new partnership

The fleet of volunteer boats partnering with Oceaneye grows bigger, and warmly welcomes today its latest member: Swiss Sail & Explore Association, thus bringing the aforesaid network to 12 sailboats.

Sail & Explore will collect samples in the course of their upcoming expeditions in the Mediterranean Sea,  the Azores and Samoa, to ultimately feed Oceaneye’s mapping of pollution. Both organisations will share data and results to feed their respective scientific publications – Sail & Explore’s can be found here –,  and will conduct joint outreach activities.

 

Based in Bern, Sail & Explore is in a way Oceaneye’s Swiss German twin. Indeed, the association also focuses on marine microplastics pollution and conducts its own expeditions. Additional activity and research fields include the detection, identification, quantification and possible implications of nanoplastic for animal and human health as well the synthesis of nanoplastics suitable as study materials, sharks and rays as well as workshops on the topic of plastic pollution and marine ecology. Sail & Explore was founded in 2017 by scientist Dr. Roman Lehner and Philipp Häfelfinger, a seasoned sailor with over 30 years’ experience. The initial aim of Sail & Explore was to close the data gap regarding missing microplastic data points to gain a better understanding of the type, amount and composition of plastics found as well as its influence on the animal world in our oceans. In addition, the expeditions also allow to raise awareness by giving non-scientist the opportunity to be part of a scientific project and learn from the experts. So pretty much like Oceaneye indeed.

 

Roman Lehner, Director of Sail & Explore, is convinced that “together with Oceaneye, we can reach, sensitise and inform a broader population to the critical problem of global plastic pollution with our citizen science initiatives, while collecting and analysing data for a solid scientific characterisation of the increasing lake and ocean plastic contamination.”

 

For Pascal Hagmann, founder and Director of Oceaneye, this partnership is a natural move. “In our logic of sharing, we are very happy to start our collaboration with Sail and Explore. This organisation is more than just a sailing partner. Indeed, it pursues similar objectives to ours (supporting science and contributing to raising awareness on the topic of plastic pollution of waters) with a complementary approach, as its activities – besides field studies – are mainly in Eastern Switzerland. Its research projects are also more oriented towards specific studies carried out with universities, whereas Oceaneye focuses mainly on the production and distribution of data, particularly to international organisations. This collaboration will allow us to better share our skills and data via our respective networks to improve the impact of our activities.”

 

No doubt that such favourable winds right from the beginning will take both associations very far.

The spectrometer: the indispensable tool for plastic CSIs

Analysing microplastics samples is a long and meticulous work, a bit like that of a coroner, yet less gruesome – even if results sometimes also give you the creeps.

Once sieves, binocular loupes, tweezers and scales have been handled to separate, identify, count and weigh all plastics particles present in a sample, remains a « quality control » with a representative batch as a final step. Indeed, we have to make sure of the types of polymers present in all analysed microplastics.

Surely you have already watched a crime drama where the lab guy, wearing a white coat 99% of the time (scoop: 99% of scientists don’t wear one in real life), throws in, in an obvious and erudite way for the average viewer, “this sample has to be identified with a mass spectrometer”. Here we are. It is a bit similar for Oceaneye, except that we use a FTIR spectrometer (stands for Fourier Transform InfraRed) and not a mass spectrometer, the former being generously provided by the Chimiscope, our University of Geneva partner. We had addressed this topic in a previous news, let’s go further yet in a simpler way.


How does it work?

The equipment needed to carry out an identification consists of the actual spectrometer, a tablet, powerful lighting thanks to a rostrum camera, an analysis sheet, alcoholic solution, a binder with reference samples and their chemical formula, and, of course, a computer. The whole process is actually simpler than it seems.

His name is Cary. Not Grant, but Agilent Cary 630. A little gem.

So-called compostable bags are featured in the reference database since they belong to a bioplastics family.

​The particles to be analysed are individually placed on the squared sheet, then photographed with the tablet connected to the computer and saved in the database.

The tablet must be perfectly positioned before starting the analysis process.

No bingo grid, no quine, and a full house is more of a bad sign than a nice prize…

A single particle is then placed on the surface of the spectrometer, cleaned beforehand with an alcoholic solution to avoid any potential contamination by the previous sample, and wedged under the press until a “click” indicates that the particle is correctly in place. The flatter and smoother the contact surface between the sensor and the sample is, the more accurate the analysis will be. Indeed, the sensor sends an infrared spectrum and “reads” the response sent by the polymer; each plastic polymer having a very specific spectrum – a bit like DNA or finger prints – thus allowing its identification. As a result of their age, prolonged immersion in seawater or exposure to sun at the time they were collected, some samples can be very brittle and disintegrate under the pressure of the sensor. However, they remain exploitable in most cases.

Before…

After press: with the “click”, came the “scrouitch”. This sample was unfortunately particularly fragile.

The Agilent MicroLab software first checks that the sample is correctly aligned with the sensor. If the blue bar reaches the green area, the particle is ready for the analysis.

Green light: next step.

 

The software analyses the particle and compares it with over a thousand references – called signatures – in three databases in order to find a match. It only takes a few seconds before a list of matches appears in order of probability. In the below example, it is an almost perfect match: there is an 82% chance that this particle is polyethylene. Only results with a rate of verified polymers superior to 72% are considered reliable.

In blue is the reference curve of the existing sample in the database, to which is compared that of the analysed particle, in red.

 

However, particles occasionally puzzle us when curves don’t match the database, partly or totally. In the following example, there is a 74% probability of natural latex rubber against a 72% for polyethylene – which does not facilitate our task. That would be too easy. Several explanations are possible.

A little challenge for our lab guys’ neurons and analytical skills. 

 

A first trail could be that the contact surface between the sensor and the particle is neither smooth nor big enough, thus confusing the spectrometer’s effectively reduced reading field. So the analysis must be done all over again.

We can also have a close look at the elastic properties of the sample: is it flexible like rubber or rigid like polyethylene? This approach is nevertheless not easily practicable on a few millimetres’ small sample since it could damage it.

Another possibility can be found in the actual composition of the sample: it could be an aggregate right from the production stage – many items are composed of several types of material – or a fusion – that is to say, when different particles, whether of plastics or not, aggregated in an environment where they ended up. The signatures will logically be multiple.

A more powerful equipment than the ATR FTIR would be needed to carry out further analysis, should a correspondence be of only 50% or 60%. Which, unfortunately, the Chimiscope does not have.

At the end of the day, we proceed by elimination and evaluation of probabilities. If a serious doubt still remains, the sample is labelled as “unidentified” and put aside for a while, then analysed again when the software database is richer. But it needs to be in a workable state.

Fair enough. So what?

Why is it so important since it is a matter of plastics anyway? Oceaneye provides its data to large-scale international bodies for policy and/or economical decision-making, just like the European Commission banned a certain type of single-use plastics on the basis of this data. Hence is it crucial for us to guarantee their total quality and reliability because this has made, and still makes today, our reputation to these institutions. To this day, our polymers identification result is 89% and we aspire to improvement.

A bit like a coroner who would be well advised not to be mistaken when declaring the cause of a death…

A wealth of activities for Oceaneye’s participation in the IUCN World Conservation Congress Marseille from 3 to 10 September 2021

Sailing trips, microplastics sampling and observation, presentation on stage, information stand, christening of the association’s sailboat by mentor Ifremer’s François Galgani, but also departure harbour of its four-week scientific expedition: Geneva association Oceaneye offers a wealth of outreach activities to raise awareness of marine microplastic pollution, in the framework of the IUCN World Conservation Congress Marseille. All activities are open to journalists, professional organisations, and the general public.

“Citizen science” sailing trips

From 4 to 8 September, Oceaneye offers to take part in a demonstration at sea of microplastics sampling and observation aboard the association’s sailboat equipped with scientific material. During the trip, participants will be able to see and understand the sampling process, how microplastics are analysed and how data is mapped. This activity shows what fieldwork is, what lies behind the figures and how results are get. The participants will see actual microplastics they will have collected themselves, in their own environment.

Departure every day at 8:00, 11:00, 14:00, 17:00 (subject to weather conditions). Duration: 2 hours. Meeting point: the Mucem. Registration is mandatory and can be completed online or at Parc Chanot (subject to availability). Visitors are welcome to visit the sailboat in between excursions.

Christening of the Oceaneye sailboat

On Saturday 4 September 18:00 at its moorings at the Mucem, the association’s new sailboat will joyfully be christened by mentor François Galgani, Ifremer worldwide famous oceanographer. Amongst its numerous activities, Oceaneye provides microplastics analysis, data, and mapping to the European Commission through Ifremer, the French National Institute for Ocean Science.

Pascal Hagmann, Oceaneye Founder and Managing Director: “Offering François Galgani to christen our sailboat and be her ‘godfather’ was obvious for Oceaneye. He triggered the founding of the association and was instrumental in it. He has been a fantastic driving force in our activities for ten years. This is a way of thanking him in our own way for his support in our early days and for everything he has achieved in fighting plastic pollution, especially for having this issue recognised by the European Commission through the Marine Strategy Framework Directive”.

François Galgani, Ifremer oceanographer: “It is a pleasure to partner with Oceaneye, one of the very first scientific and citizen initiatives studying marine plastic pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. The association has now become a major international stakeholder, reputed with European bodies and global initiatives such as the G20”.

Pascal Hagmann and François Galgani will be available for journalists who wish to interview them. The celebration is open to everyone.

 

Presentation at the IUCN Ocean & Islands Pavilion

On Tuesday 7 September, from 9:30 to 10:30 at the IUCN Ocean & Islands Pavilion (#O02, Ocean area in the Parc Chanot main hall), Oceaneye Founder and Managing Director Pascal Hagmann will introduce “A cost-effective approach to marine microplastic monitoring”. He will tackle the crucial importance of providing field data, how these are produced – notably thanks to citizen science, and used in political decision-making.

The presentation will run in English and will be webcast live from our social media pages. Online viewers are welcome to ask questions. In-person access to the Pavilion to ticket holders.

 

Oceaneye information stand

From 4 until 8 September, ticket holders are welcome to visit the Oceaneye stand to find out more about our activities, marine microplastic pollution, and discover (many) samples under a microscope. The stand (L17) is located in the Landscape area of the Parc Chanot main hall.

Kick-off of the autumn expedition

On Friday 10 September, Oceaneye sailboat “Daisy” will cast off for a four-week scientific expedition, in three stages of eight to ten days, and with stop-overs in Sardinia and Sicily. The expedition objective is to collect microplastic samples in the central Mediterranean Sea to populate our database and expand our plastic pollution map, but not only: it is also a real-life adventure.

Paying guests of all backgrounds are welcome aboard. There are a few spots left! Information (dates, stop-overs, price, programme, registration) is available in French at https://www.oceaneye.ch/oceaneye-repart-en-expedition-en-septembre-2021/.

“Did You Know?”: Oceaneye’s new informative section on plastic

Oceaneye is pursuing its mission to inform and raise public awareness by launching a new section on social media.

The “fantastic” world of plastic and its numerous materials with obscure and daunting acronyms are part of our daily lives; the dizzyingly high numbers swarm and are often difficult to understand. PLA, PE, PVC, PET, PP… Pardon? A natural reaction since we are not all natural chemists, nor are we aware of the stakes relating to these materials. We are tempted not to read in-depth articles, despite their enlightening content.

As from today and on the occasion of World Ocean Day, Oceaneye is launching « Did You Know? », a concise section to address plastics from various angles – economic, geographic, serious, fun, and even provocative – yet always scientifically backed with figures and references.

Oceaneye will regularly publish on social media (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn) a bite-size key information as a quiz about an unknown plastic- and/or microplastics-related fact or figure. The answer will be published the next day on the same channel, where anyone is welcome to pick up, debate, wonder.

Indeed, to be a player in tackling the problem, one needs to understand it first.

Join us on our social media!