Dealing with marine plastic pollution

Microplastics are less than five millimetres in size.

Microplastics are small fragments of plastic that pollute the environment.

Defined as less than five millimetres in size and derived from plastic materials,they enter natural ecosystems as

run offs of cleaning and personal care products or the result of weathering and photo-degradation as well as various mechanical forces of products like fishing nets, household items and other discarded plastic items.

According to Dr Yusof Shuaib Ibrahim, senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu’s School of Marine and Environmental Sciences,

microplastics have a high surface to volume ratio and hydrophobic characteristic which make them an excellent vector in transporting various types of

environmental chemicals into the marine food web.

“The chemicals absorbed on the microplastics have carcinogenic and mutagenic effects on organisms. As the size of microplastics is very small, it

can easily be ingested bymarine organisms, enter the food chain through predation, and eventually reach the human bodies,” he said.

Aquatic ecosystems in Malaysia are also part of this emerging global issue, Yusof highlighted.

“Scientific knowledge on microplastics distribution and its concentration in our environment is vital as part of the national effort to develop effective

management and mitigation measures,” he said.

For this purpose, in 2017 a group of scientists from UMT established the Microplastics Research Interest Group (MRIG) consisting of experts from

various field of studies like marine biology, environmental chemistry, physical chemistry, chemometrics, metagenomics, ocean dynamics,

analytical chemistry, entomology, and food microbiology.

The MRIG focuses on quantitation, characterisation and method development for microplastics (MPs) analysis and marine debris in order to identify the path and fate as well as to increase the understanding of this emerging pollutants in the food web.

Yusof, who heads MRIG, said the research on microplastics in UMT actually started from 2014 focusing on occurrence of microplastics in marine

organisms such as polychaete (marine worms), bivalves, sea cucumber, and commercial fishes among others.

The research later expanded to water, sediment and airborne contamination.

Using the baseline data, the MRIG group is now furthering its study on the impact of microplastics to human health.

“The study has been conducted specifically in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. However, the expansion of the research area will be widened to

compare the pristine, moderate and polluted areas in Malaysia depending on fund availability.

The data on this research will be beneficial to the government, industry and public,” said Yusof.

On top of the research, the group is also working on the solution to microplastics pollution such as the development of bio plastics derived fromrenewable

biomass sources as well as the development of biomaterials that can be used for microplastics clean up.

“In recent years, marine plastic pollution has been attracting increase attention from researchers, policy makers, and the public.

In the year 2018, Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) has introduced Malaysia’s Roadmap towards Zero Single Use Plastics 2018-2030. The vision of this road map is to promote Malaysia’s sustainable development, balancing the economic growth and environmental protection, simultaneously. The use of single-use plastic will be abolished, and replaced with alternative eco-friendly products such as bioplastics and reusable straws,” Yusof elaborated.

He said UMT’s development of biodegradable polymer is still at its initial stage.

“However, we can foresee the commercial potential of the findings. In this study, we explore the use of palm oil and other edible oils in collaboration with our foreign counterpart.

“The development of biomaterials for microplastics removal has also been conducted in our lab.

We utilize the potential of using polysaccharides as a precursor or production of biomaterials.

The findings of this study is planned to be published by end of this year,” he said.

The MRIG team is also actively sharing their knowledge and recent findings on microplastic pollution with the private and public sectors through seminars and conferences.

It has also embarked on corporate social responsibility programmes since 2017 targeted at school children to create awareness about their roles to protect the environment in reducing plastic pollution. Thus far it has involved more than five schools and one orphanage, with the total number of students involved numbering at more than 2,000.

“The public awareness programme has been carried out by researchers and students of MRIG, with support from the student academic clubs and professional bodies in Terengganu. We hope the campaign can inspire the younger generation and raise awareness about microplastic pollution and its danger to our future,” he said.

The MRIG group has recently received a grant through UMT’s Centre of Knowledge Transfer and Industrial Networks (PIJI), focusing on a knowledge transfer programme involving coastal area communities related to issues of global sustainability.

“Our proposal, “Small hands change the world: Raising Awareness of Plastic Pollution”, has been awarded this grant by the university for 2019.

The proposed programme is an initiative to enhance environmental health awareness, especially among primary school students. This programme

aims to educate the younger generation particularly primary school students in Kuala Nerus on the importance of protecting marine environment

By Rozana Sani.

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