BabyLegs: a DIY research trawl for monitoring ocean plastic
BabyLegs is a DIY research net (or trawl) for monitoring plastic pollution, especially microplastics, in surface water.
Created with a pair of baby’s tights, soda pop bottles, and other inexpensive and easy-to-find materials, BabyLegs can be used to monitor floating microplastics from the surface of the water in your local ocean, lake, river, stream, or canal.
Does your water have plastics? How many? What kind? Where are they coming from? BabyLegs can help you find out.
Of the 5.25 trillion pieces of marine plastics in the world’s oceans, 92% are less than 5mm in size (Eirksen et al., 2014) making them part of shorelines, underwater environments, waterscapes, and even food webs. This makes microplastics an environmental justice issue as people who eat marine mammals or who depend upon fish for sustenance are more likely to carry high toxic burdens.
The kit is designed to be easy to assemble and cost as little as possible so that anyone can use it. It makes for a great classroom project, as well as an accessible tool for measuring local microplastic pollution.
Use it outside
BabyLegs can be used in many different places. Drag it from a boat, a bridge or a dock to collect a sample for analysis.
BabyLegs is one of several open source instruments for monitoring marine plastics created by Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist and anti-colonial marine science laboratory. CLEAR works to put the values of equity, humility, and justice into all of their scientific practices, from creating tools to ordering supplies to hiring members. Rather that rushing to the “frontiers” of science and assuming access to land for research (which would be colonial), BabyLegs is built for CLEAR’s own remote, northern environment using local tools, and was originally used to see if plastics from sewage outfalls matched plastics found in sustenance food webs that lab members and their families depend upon. If you want to see more about how CLEAR foregrounds feminist and anti-colonial values and practices in science, see their website https://civiclaboratory.nl/
Public Lab is an open community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. By democratizing inexpensive and accessible “Do-It-Yourself” techniques, Public Lab creates a collaborative network of practitioners who actively re-imagine the human relationship with the environment.
CLEAR and Public Lab are pleased to work together based on these shared values to bring BabyLegs to more people! Your contribution allows us to make a BabyLegs kit to make sourcing easier, support an online community of users (including access to the scientists who built BabyLegs), and scientific validation of the tool.
$20 - A “Field Guide to Microplastics” poster
A full-color poster showing a wide variety of plastic pollution types and their sources.
$25 - BabyLegs Basic Trawl Kit
Build your own DIY plastic trawl from simple parts and use it to learn about plastic pollution at a nearby river or beach.
$70 - DIY Microscope Kit (with BabyLegs)
Build a Community Microscope Kit, modified for analyzing tiny plastic bits you catch with BabyLegs.
$65 - Sea Globe Kit (with BabyLegs)
Construct a tiny microcosm of a nearby waterway to display the plastics you catch.
BabyLegs in the wild
Community and NGO groups have had success using BabyLegs to gather samples in the Arctic, Antarctica, China, France, New York City, and beyond. The main expertise bottleneck is not in building or using BabyLegs, but in interpreting the samples. Microplastics are very hard to visually identify, since many look like rocks, insect skeletons, and organics, and tiny plastics can be hard to see at all. The activity guides included with this kit are divided into sections on building the BabyLegs trawl, deploying BabyLegs in the water, processing the sample in a kitchen, school, or laboratory where plastics are sorted from organics, and finally forensically analyzing the microplastics so you can learn about pollution in your waters.
BabyLegs has been used by many groups already, and their stories illustrate some of the important possibilities BabyLegs opens up:
“We used BabyLegs to see if there were plastics in the waters around Nain, the most northern settled Inuit community in Labrador, Canada. In the open water, we found nothing. When we put BabyLegs on a stick and dangled her off the local wharf, we pulled up paint chips, microfibers from laundry, rayon from cigarette butts, and so much more! We were surprised to find so much local plastic from the wharf where many people fish for food. Now we're seeing if those same kinds of plastics are in our fish.” -- Natasha, Nain, Canada
The La Pagaie Sauvage citizen science group in France used BabyLegs to collect and analyze the composition of microplastics in the surface waters of different rivers (Allier, Charente, Loire, Touvre). The final part of the project was to trawl along the Garonne River, one of the biggest French rivers, in order to do a complete analysis of microplastics distribution from the source to the sea! -- Alexandre, Anglet, France
"So, your creation has captured the hearts and minds of our team, with a mix of love and repulsion that is hard to describe. Kate wants to make it the subject of a children's book, and thinks it should have its own Twitter account. Chris thought it needed eyes, which is what I really wanted to share with you." -- John, California, USA
In order to reduce plastic waste, BabyLegs is designed around a re-used plastic bottle. Use this guide to select an appropriate bottle for your kit.
PLEASE NOTE: You may see customs fees if you're outside the US, and we can't estimate the amount, so please check with your local postal service if you have questions.
Risks and challenges
NOT “JUST A STORE”
Distributing kits as Public Lab does, it’s always a risk that people will think of us as an online business, and not a growing community (and a non-profit) where their involvement is more important than the money they spend. We’re doing our best to communicate what we’re about through the story above, but we’re also dedicated to shaping the objects themselves, their boxes and packaging, to communicate this ethos. That said, we've run six successful Kickstarters in this way, and have been distributing tens of thousands of kits around the world for nine years -- so it's not new to us!
TACKLING CHALLENGES TOGETHER
Part of the challenge of Public Lab work in general is to encourage people to share and build things together -- not just things they’ve done, but questions they want to ask, concerns they have, and requests for help. Sometimes it can feel like these are impositions on everyone else, but at Public Lab we celebrate them as the very foundation of the collaborative process. Sharing half-completed projects, doubts, and frustrations can help invite others into your work and strengthen it.
Of course, it can also be a challenge to encourage people to report back when they do projects. These projects are about more than “tools” -- they’re about the stories that come from people adapting, reshaping, and applying them to a thousand different problems or scenarios. We’ll be highlighting many of the stories of people’s amazing work with BabyLegs kits.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
Environmental commitmentsVisit our Environmental Resources Center to learn how Kickstarter encourages sustainable practices.
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