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The source of the solution: how interdisciplinary research is helping us understand the scale of plastic pollution

Plastic pollution has now been detected in clouds, raising the prospect of 'plastic rainfall'. The shocking findings are the latest indication of the serious global impact of plastic waste. How can we tackle and limit some of the worst potential impacts of microplastics?

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In March of last year, the United Nations Environmental Assembly endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution by forging a legally–binding international agreement by 2024. According to research from UNESCO, around eight to ten million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. The resolution recognises the urgent action required to tackle the problem in our oceans, seas and inland bodies of water.

Academic research is the leading pathway to tackling the biggest challenges facing humanity. As society grapples with the realities of industrialisation’s impact on the environment, Queen Mary University of London is applying its innovative approach to research to the problem of plastic waste.

There is currently a major gap in our understanding of microplastics. To effectively clean up the world’s water and marine ecosystems, we must better understand the sources and spread of plastic pollution using robust and standardised sampling methods. This requires interdisciplinary collaboration.

Tracing from source to sea

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have taken the lead by forming an interdisciplinary group of researchers across disciplines such as polymer chemistry, geography, ecology and microbiology. Led by Professor Iwan Jones, the River Communities Group (RCG) seeks to advance understanding of freshwater ecosystems to better protect and manage them.

The group’s Preventing Plastic Pollution (PPP) project will identify and target hotspots of plastic waste and embed behaviour change in local communities and businesses to limit plastic usage and disposal.

The group are working to understand the scale of plastic pollution across the UK and France, and what action we can take to prevent it.

After initially completing a systematic analysis of reliable global data in 2020, Professor Jones’ team demonstrated the urgent need to standardise methods of monitoring the environmental impact of plastic pollution.

Their approach enables the RCG to take an end-to-end view, driving innovative solutions by assessing the causes as well as the impacts.

To achieve this, the team are developing an online portal to gather data from citizen scientists and use this to model the amount and likely sources of plastic pollution. Based across seven waterways in the Channel region of France and the UK, this also involves using nets with fine mesh filters to catch microplastics before studying their origins in a lab.

With expert chemists working to analyse the chemistry and makeup of the plastic samples collected, biologists can then identify the impacts of specific plastics and by-products on the environment, allowing them to highlight priority actions to limit the impact.

Tapping into community action

Queen Mary has a legacy of working closely with the communities its research impacts and the RCG are following in this tradition. As part of the project, the team are helping empower communities to take action against plastic pollution, by leading rubbish collection drives with The Rivers Trust, an organisation championing the conservation of rivers across the UK.

By engaging society to become a part of the solution, researchers can immediately drive positive impact from their findings, while also activating a wider network to support data collection and deliver solutions. This will help demonstrate best practice behaviour for preventing plastic from entering waterways.

Taking a local approach can be particularly effective, as while ocean plastic seems like the largest problem, 80% of waste plastic reaching our oceans is delivered by rivers.

Working together for a cleaner future

The PPP project is a response to severe gaps in our understanding of the sources and fate of plastic pollution. As the project continues, the team’s work will help drive innovation and the creation of new solutions to prevent the harmful impact of disposed plastic. Working across society, with business, retail and leisure, they have been finding effective ways to reduce plastic usage and prevent plastic pollution.

This has only been possible thanks to an interdisciplinary effort, where Queen Mary’s diverse team have tackled the problem from a scientific, ecological, and societal angle.

This interdisciplinary approach means that the project won’t just find ways to reduce the impact of microplastics, but it will help us understand their full lifecycle so that we can prevent them from entering the environment in the first case.

The RCG’s diverse skillset also ensures researchers are continuously challenged with the alternate viewpoints of colleagues from different disciplines. This opens the door for innovation and new discoveries to support progress.

As researchers continue to uncover the impact of microplastics across the globe, the power of new, standardised data has never been so important. Together, we can look to a possible future free from the damaging impacts of plastic pollution.

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