citizen science, part 2: the plastic is always deeper in someone else’s quadrat

On a glorious late November day a group of student artists and friends got together at Gylly Beach to investigate beach rubbish and spend some time in the wonderful, if somewhat slippery, spot where place, science, environmental art  and performance meet.

A beautiful, if empty, quadrat. This and all photos for this post by Jan Nowell.

They had come because I asked them. After our last exercise with quadrats (see previous post) I wanted to see what would happen if we pushed the performative element of working on the beach. For which I needed more people, Jan to help me test a different way of making quadrats and to take photos, and something to make us stand out on the beach. I chose Hi-V vests, that ubiquitous, modern item of clothing that signals “this is serious work, people.”

When I ordered the Hi-V’s I had various designations printed on them. I’m not sure if my crew took their Hi-V’s seriously. But I do think they enjoyed wearing them, especially those with TOXIC WASTE printed on the back:

And they're all wearing red, how perfect is that?

To be honest, this time around the science was even thinner on the ground (sand?) than before. The task was to work in groups to create blocks of I metre square quadrats using string and tent pegs. We had three groups, one at each end of the beach and one in the middle, in front of the cafe. How they chose the spot for their quadrats and how they configured them, was up to each group. What they did with their quadrats once they started to look at the metre square of beach contained within them, was up to each individual. It was pretty loose because I was as interested in how the participants would react to the situation I had set up for them, as in what they would find. Their experience, as much as their findings, was the data I was after. As well as the impact we might have on other people on the beach – this was supposed to be a performance, after all.

The team at the Castle, or NE , end of the beach – Dani, Caroline and James –  chose to lay out their quadrats in a row to form a transect through the wrack line, the line of seaweed and other debris left behind on the beach by the previous high tide. James’s quadrat, which was full of seaweed, yielded 41 items, including nurdles, polystyrene fragments and a crisp packet folded and tied in a knot. Only one metre away, Caroline’s metre squared, above the high tide line, and with very little seaweed in it yielded – “NOTHING!!!” (I notice Dani chose a Hi-V with ARTIST printed on the back. Nice one, Dani.)

The red team, Arabella, Naomi, Nina and Val went down to the Swanpool, or SW, end of the beach and also chose to lay out their quadrats in a row to form a “cross-section up the beach” with differing amount of weed.

In spite of digging deep this group did not find as much rubbish as they had expected, only a few items in each quadrat. A result that surprised and perplexed them – should they be disappointed or pleased that they didn’t find as much as they had hoped for? Most of the rubbish that ended up in their quadrats (you can see some of it at the bottom of the above photo) was provided by Bruno, released from the tedium of school by the public workers’ strike and on the beach with his grandparents. Bruno was tireless in his efforts and happy to talk about his work.

Is it plastic or is it seaweed?

Bruno also earned a Hi-V vest, with MAINTENANCE printed on the back. Appropriate for someone who worked so hard to clean the beach for us and who already sorts out his grandma’s recycling. His grandparents were delighted that he had the opportunity to join us. We were delighted to have him join our team.

The red team also attracted the attention of some dog walkers, who were shocked to learn about plastic ocean pollution. One lady was very concerned by the TOXIC WASTE Hi-V’s and wondered was it safe to walk on the beach? The next day I learned that she had asked the same of one of the regular morning swimmers. I have mixed feelings about this reaction. I deliberately chose the words TOXIC WASTE to shock people into thinking about the toxic nature of plastic pollution. But I don’t want to get people down about it. It’s difficult to feel you can do anything about a problem if it feels overwhelming. Perhaps CLEANER BEACH might be a more positive message, one that allows for action?

In the middle of the beach, and right below the cafe, Katy drew the short straw. Her team was supposed to also consist of me and Jan. But Jan was busy recording GPS readings and taking photos. And I was busy running up and down the beach making sure everyone was working hard, I mean happy. Undeterred by the rest of her crew spending as much time elsewhere as with her, Katy made up four quadrats arranged with two below the high tide line, one at, and one above,the wrack line.

I took the high quadrat and found one piece of cloth. Katy took the other three. In common with a lot of the group, Katy found the quadrat a “great way of placing yourself, making yourself look deeper and more carefully.” Most of the rubbish she found was on the surface at and above the wrack line. Below high tide she had to dig to find four pieces of worn glass. Thankfully Katy’s daughter Lily and mother Teresa arrived to help, and soon we had roped in our youngest, and smallest, team member yet:

Once Katy had her quadrats wrapped up, the whole family decided to clean up the rubbish outside the quadrats. (Teresa is a nurse and she identified a surgical instrument. Thankfully no needle involved, but how on earth did something like that end up on the beach?) The others had the same idea – James and Jan ended their time on the beach by walking the length of the wrack line and cleaning up: a better use of time than staring into, and methodically sorting through, a metre square?

James and Jan taking care of the rest of the beach. (Obviously, I took this one!)

Back at the cafe we evaluated the morning’s work and warmed up:

I am happy to report that a jolly time had been had by all. Everybody enjoyed being out on the beach on such a wonderful morning. Words such as harmonious and meditative were used to describe the experience. As in our previous outing, using the quadrat had proven to be both a useful discipline and a source of frustration: too small  a means of investigating an issue as huge as ocean pollution. And while the group felt there was value in collaboration, and we had made an impact on the other people on the beach, the consensus was that there was no scientific value in this exercise at all!

Turns out quite a few of the team had way more knowledge and experience of science than I do. They did agree, however, that using the quadrats, even in a manner that was not scientifically valid, was useful in training the eye to look. A skill both scientists and artists do well to cultivate.

(Many thanks to the crew, their family members and Bruno for all their hard work. Thanks also to Tina who came for a while to film our work, to Daro for joining his students on the beach, and to those members of the public who talked to us and offered to help. And many thanks also to all the staff at for printing and sending the Hi-V vests so promptly.)


One thought on “citizen science, part 2: the plastic is always deeper in someone else’s quadrat

  1. Fantastic work! We need more cleanups like these around our coasts. With the North Atlantic Garbage Patch on our doorstep the amount of waste on UK beaches isn’t going to get better any time soon! Thanks for all your hard work

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