Cleaning up a marine microplastic mess
Marine microplastics are a global pollution problem. A new project aims to remove them from our oceans and waterways using new technology and citizen science.
What the project will do
They contaminate our drinking water, endanger marine life and make their way into our food chain. Yet, as their name suggests, marine microplastics are hard to spot and even harder to eliminate.
Microplastics are typically smaller than a grain of rice and often referred to as “tiny pieces of human society”.
University of Technology Sydney (UTS) marine biologist Dr Jennifer Matthews and UNSW Sydney materials scientist Dr Rakesh Joshi are working to rid marine ecosystems of microplastics while ensuring marine life and the environment are unaffected.
Microplastics get washed down the drain and ingested by all types of marine life, from phytoplankton to whales.
Dr Jennifer Matthews, UTS
With funding from The Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, the two researchers aim to take advantage of the different physical and chemical properties of microplastics to develop a mechanical device that can be deployed in marine environments.
“Microplastics come from a variety of sources, not just the obvious ones such as plastic bottles and bags that degrade into smaller pieces,” says Dr Jennifer Matthews from the UTS Climate Change Cluster.
“Our clothes also shed tiny plastic fibres and many household products, such as cosmetics and toothpaste, contain microplastics that get washed down the drain and ingested by all types of marine life, from phytoplankton to whales,” she says.
Dr Joshi says microplastics are coming full circle via the food chain.
“Originating from chemicals manufactured by humans and carrying pollutants from the environment, microplastics then return as a toxicity risk to marine life and human health,” he says.
“Our project will explore the potential of applying a self-sufficient, mechanical tool to aggregate microplastics in seawater by exploiting their small size and chemical capacity. These ‘clumps’ of concentrated microplastics can then be easily removed by existing ocean-pollution removal technology.”
How citizen science can help
A key element of the project will be collaborating with existing citizen science campaigns to help identify and quantify local marine microplastic pollution through the collection of existing microplastic pollution from beaches. This allows the researchers to work with real microplastics rather than laboratory-generated samples and will raise awareness of the plastic “junk food” being consumed by both marine life and humans.
“There is no doubt that the most effective way to reduce microplastic pollution is to use less plastics in everyday life, recycle used plastic and prevent plastic pollution entering our wastewater. But what of the 5.3 trillion plastic particles currently circulating our oceans? We believe our research will advance solutions to reduce microplastic pollution in our oceans,” Dr Matthews says.
In the initial phases of the project, the researchers aim to deploy a scaled-up prototype of their pilot tool, demonstrate its effectiveness and quantify the global potential. They hope their work will also impact community views on the microplastic issue and government policies around sustainability “It’s difficult to solve a problem you can’t see,” Dr Joshi says.
“This project will provide a much-needed focus and data on the global problem of marine microplastics, which we hope will encourage communities and governments to tackle one of the biggest societal threats to marine life.”
Dr Jennifer Matthews is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the UTS Climate Change Cluster Future Reefs Research Program and has been involved in several marine conservation initiatives.
Dr Rakesh Joshi is a Senior Lecturer, School of Materials Science and Engineering, UNSW Sydney and has been involved in the development of a world-first graphene filter that removes natural organic carbon from water.
Established in 1923, Melbourne based, The Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation is one of Australia’s largest community charitable foundations. Funding for this project was one of 12 Seed Innovation Grants announced for 2019/2020 to support research, new ideas and creative solutions to current social and environmental issues.
Planning a beach clean-up?
The researchers are working with AUSMAP at Manly Cove this Clean Up Australia Day and are keen to work with local Sydney beach clean-up groups over the next few months to gather representative samples of marine microplastics. For more information, contact Jennifer.Matthews@uts.edu.au