UKZN Microplastics Research Featured on Carte BlancheAgriculture, Engineering & Science

From left: Ms Kaveera Singh, Mr Sipho Mkhize, Ms Gemma Gerber, Mr Mathew Coote, Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson and Dr Gan Moodley.From left: Ms Kaveera Singh, Mr Sipho Mkhize, Ms Gemma Gerber, Mr Mathew Coote, Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson and Dr Gan Moodley.

UKZN’s Marine Biology, Aquaculture, Conservation Education and Ecophysiology (MACE) Laboratory was featured in a recent episode of the TV show Carte Blanche which highlighted microplastics and the danger they pose to marine life.

MACE is headed up by Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson and Mr Gan Moodley of the School of Life Sciences, who supervise the projects of postgraduate students in their lab.

The TV segment explained what microplastics are and dealt with the dire effects of microplastic contamination, revealing that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than marine life, affecting up to 90% of sea birds.

Plastics, widely used without long-term consideration of impact; take hundreds of years to degrade and are washed out to sea where they collect in five major gyres worldwide, one of which covers an area larger than South Africa and in places is more than three metres deep.

Marine life cannot distinguish between plastic and food, consuming the plastic and then starving to death.

Microplastic (particles smaller than 5mm long) are either manufactured to this size (primary), or broken down from larger plastics (secondary). They are too small to be filtered at sewage plants, flowing into rivers and ultimately the ocean.

MACE researchers have found that 30% of fish they study contain microplastics. All 16 species under analysis had microplastics in their guts, irrespective of where they feed in the water column.

Microplastics, found in beauty and household products and synthetic fibres released from clothing in washing cycles, have been banned in several countries, but not in South Africa.

Moodley explained that microplastic contamination of marine life started with primitive organisms at the base of the food chain - the effects were multiplied up the food chain as contaminants accumulated, affecting development and fertility of larger predators. Microplastics both release and absorb dangerous chemical pollutants from the surrounding water, making them up to one million times more toxic than the surrounding water.

The TV feature touched on the research of postgraduate students Mr Sipho Mkhize, Ms Kaveera Singh, Ms Gemma Gerber and Mr Mathew Coote. In the video, Mkhize dissected a fish caught in the Durban harbour, demonstrating the extent of the microplastics in its stomach, Singh discussed finding nylon clothing fibres in the Umgeni River, and Gerber spoke about the impact of microplastics on mussels, an important local food source.

Fish, including those contaminated, are a major food source for many South Africans. A CSIR research project featured on the programme recommended less than five fish meals from affected systems per person per month to avoid adverse health effects.

Despite the challenges, Robertson-Andersson is positive. ‘Twenty years ago, we had things like glass and tin cans and plastic bottles on the beaches,’ she said. ‘With programmes such as Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, people have become more aware of their plastic products. We can do something about it, but it’s up to each individual person, rather than big organisations.’

Moodley, Robertson-Andersson and their students are involved in many beach clean-up events, collecting data and partnering with Durban Umgeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) and Paddle for the Planet to clean up river systems and remove plastic waste before it reaches the ocean.

‘We have only one planet we call home and we all need to do our little bit to keep it healthy, clean and sustainable,’ said Moodley. ‘We encourage individuals and organisations to join us in these clean-up activities to ensure that we DO make a difference.’

View video: http://carteblanche.dstv.com/player/1114154/

-Video courtesy of http://carteblanche.dstv.com/

Christine Cuénod