Microplastics Surveys – engaging northern Sydneysiders through science and action

A project by the Northern Sydney Environmental Educators Network

This project engaged 80 educators, students and community members on the issue of microplastics, empowering them to run five citizen science microplastic surveys and litter clean ups along beaches and rivers in northern Sydney.

In early 2018 the Australian Marine Educators Network and Northern Sydney Environmental Education Network trialled a training workshop for 24 environmental educators interested in running microplastic surveys within their own communities. The workshop was held at the Coastal Environment Centre at Narrabeen Lagoon and participants were from Councils, Environmental Education Centres, schools and non-government organisations.

“The engagement and running of the microplastic training program with professionals in the environmental education space has helped to form solid collaborative associations that will lead to ongoing activity and road test and improve the program overall”.
Dr Scott Wilson, Macquarie University

The workshop began with a presentation by the Department of Environmental Sciences at Macquarie University on microplastics, followed by an explanation of the scientific field survey methodology for conducting a microplastic survey. Participants then split into groups and went outside to the lagoon shore, where they were mentored by Brewongle Environmental Education Centre and Macquarie University to set up a transect, explore that area for macroplastics and collect and record these findings along with geographical data. Sediment was collected and washed through sieves before being examined in trays for small pieces of hard plastic and microfibres suspended in water. iPads loaded with a microscope app were used indoors for examination of the microplastics in sediment samples. A Micro-Eye microscope connected to a large screen was used for finer analysis of microplastics. Educators from Take 3 showed participants how to identify the microplastics and upload the data to the Australian Marine Debris Initiative database.

Pre and post surveys on the day indicated that participants advanced their knowledge and especially skills in microplastic survey methods. Most gained a high degree of confidence to undertake their own investigation on microplastics and felt confident to organise community activities around microplastics.

"The collaborative practices required by this project significantly strengthened its outcomes for all stakeholders; Scott Wilson from Macquarie University ensured the surveying methodology was rigorous and robust; Wendy Goldstein from Macquarie University ensured the behavioural change outcomes and "bigger picture sustainability education" outcomes were met; Lena Hammond utilised the network and engaged relevant participants, and I was able to support each of these roles and manage the logistics, utilising my experience in teaching environmental education and fieldwork".  
Kate Keary, Brewongle Environmental Education Centre

Follow-up of training participants demonstrated that in the four months following the workshop, four (16%) had held microplastics surveys with a total of 56 people on Sydney Harbour and the Lane Cove River: two with school groups, one with a Council staff group and one with a community group. Another participant has advertised a survey in their Council’s 2018/19 summer program of community activities. The litter clean up components of these four surveys, in addition to the training survey, removed a total of 2 shopping bags and 5 large Clean Up Australia Day bags of pollution from northern Sydney waterways.

“It was encouraging having a full house for the pilot training day and it’s so wonderful to see many NSEEN members go on to run their own microplastic citizen science workshops. It’s nice knowing we have contributed to a growing wider community understanding of microplastic issues”.
Lena Hammond, Northern Sydney Environmental Education Network

This project helped inform the development of the Australian Microplastics Assessment Project (AUSMAP). AUSMAP is a national project on microplastic citizen science coordinated by the Total Environment Centre.  It is intended to roll out similar training throughout NSW and Australia through AUSMAP, with kits to be available for community surveys through representatives of Regional Sustainability Education Networks. The program will be available to schools (years 9-12) through NSW Environmental and Zoo Education Centres.

“I have introduced the Best Practice Sustainability Education and Engagement Project Guide to my post graduate students in their course on engaging society with sustainable development at Macquarie University two years running. Several students used the framework to plan an educational workshop that they had to deliver as an assessment task.”
Wendy Goldstein, Macquarie University


  • Northern Sydney Environmental Education Network
  • Brewongle Environmental Education Centre
  • The Australian Marine Educators Network
  • NSW Environmental Education Centres
  • Macquarie University Department of Environmental Studies
  • Take 3
  • Australian Association for Environmental Education- NSW Chapter


The evaluation of the course shows that it was very well received and that providing an experiential learning activity helped participants to advance their knowledge and especially skills in microplastics survey methods. There is a high degree of confidence amongst the participants to undertake an investigation on microplastics themselves, with most feeling confident to organise activities around microplastics. 


  • The immediate outcome of trained Council staff, NGOs and teachers on microplastics survey methods has led to the intermediate outcome of additional training and citizen scientists’ investigations being undertaken. This has engaged the community in this issue.
  • This has led to several locations where the site has been cleared of macroplastic items and the documentation of contamination of microplastics.

Unexpected outcomes have been:

  • The inclusion of NSEEN in a national microplastic citizen science project, AUSMAP with the benefits of increased network of educators and scientists, government and NGO members; additional  knowledge and a sense of connection to a bigger project and purpose;
  • Participation in a secondary teachers Enviro and Teachers conference @ Macquarie University March 21st 2018 where we were able to interest some teachers in undertaking microplastic investigations as special studies with students. We handed out the manual prepared by Scott Wilson.


The workshop included an introduction on what and why of microplastics and an explanation of the field survey method. Groups were mentored in the field to set up a transect, explore that area for macroplastics and collect and record these findings along with geographical data.

Only a 0.5 quadrat area on the strandline was used at the end of the transect to collect sediment. This was washed through two sieves, one with 1mm mesh and the second 0.5mm mesh. This fine sediment was added to water and examined for small pieces of hard plastic and microfibers suspended in the water. We tried using ipads loaded with a microscope app, though this was not as good for the fibres as a ‘big eye’ microscope (or binocular). 

What didn’t go to plan: The workshop was scheduled with short notice and was oriented to Geography and Science inquiry skill development. There was a very good response to the advertisement, though the audience was not just composed of school teachers.

There was a handbook on how to do a microplastic investigation, which was not released to all the participants, due to a lack of a partnership agreement. Only some of the pages were included in field materials to aid participants in identification.

It was hoped that the course would trigger citizen science microplastic investigations in other areas, and we asked for commitments to run a follow up program at our workshop. When we followed up in June 2018 we were pleased that several events had occurred (see Table 1).

What was harder than expected was the identification of the microplastics, especially fibres. The best equipment was the big eye microscope at the CEC to identify microfibres. The searching for and identification of microplastics was more difficult with ipads loaded with a microscope app. This work requires patience and good conditions for analysing the findings, and if counts are to be done to provide data.

What to do differently next time: The session was well organised. However providing a manual to support the organisation of follow up activities is important. One suggested that a powerpoint slide introduction would also be of value as part of the kit for follow up.

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