The Microplastics sub-project of the Global Research Translation Award is working with partners in Malaysia to build a network of academics, industry partners and policy-makers to identify and quantify the distribution of microplastics and assess the potential environmental risks.
Globally, around half of total plastic production is used for single-use packaging; around 10-14 million tonnes of this ends up in the oceans every year. Plastic gradually breaks down to produce ever-smaller microplastics, which are eaten by and cause stress to a wide variety of organisms that are vital parts of food webs. Counting microplastics in water and sediments is challenging.
Through ongoing collaborative work, a cheap and quick methodology has been developed to map microplastic levels and distribution across a range of habitats and ecosystems. Alongside supplying simple equipment, the network is creating a multilingual video manual to aid its use and ensure consistency of practice for data comparisons. A "public information" film will disseminate microplastics-associated problems and research findings to the general public and policy influencers through a range of media options.
The Microplastics project is funded by the University of East Anglia's Global Research Translation Award (GRTA), a £1.36 million project to help tackle health, nutrition, education and environment issues in developing countries. The funding comes from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which seeks to fast-track promising research findings into real-world solutions. The project partners are: Institute of Oceanography and Environment (INOS) at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Malaysia; Aques Research Group at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak, Malaysia; and the School of Chemistry, UEA, UK.
What is the environmental cost of your single use face mask?
Face masks are a key part of policy to control the spread of the coronavirus in our shops, public transport and work places, but what is the cost to the environment?
In the years before the pandemic, there was an awakening in our society that consumption of single use plastics had got out of control. Public awareness was heightened by David Attenborough showing us plastic in the oceans on Blue Planet 2 and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall walking past mountains of UK ‘recycled’ plastic being illegally burnt in Malaysia in War on Plastic. Some political action is happening, with the plastic bag charge being increased to 10p in 2021 and a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds coming into force last month (October 2020).
Yet Covid-19 has undone so much progress on the endeavours to reduce single-use plastics: the plastic bag charge has been waived for supermarket home deliveries during the pandemic, coffee shops no longer accept reusable mugs for takeaway drinks, schools are serving school lunches in plastic takeaway containers in classrooms. Yet potentially the biggest plastic problem of the pandemic is PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).
A poll in September suggested that 51% of Britons are opting for single-use face coverings. If this many people use two masks a day, that could mean over 50 million single-use face masks being discarded every day1. If just 1% of face masks are disposed incorrectly, that’s half a million face masks getting into the UK environment every day! Already, the evidence is stacking up: in August, one beach cleaner in Cornwall found 171 pieces of PPE in a one-hour litter pick2, compared with 6 items pre-pandemic.
Litter and landfill
Everyone reading this has likely seen discarded PPE on the ground near their homes. Masks, gloves and wet wipes litter road verges, rivers and beaches, blighting our enjoyment of the outdoors. Incorrectly disposed PPE is a health hazard for humans, being a potential vector for the virus. This litter can cause harm to animal life through strangling, tangling and ingestion. The number of animals trapped in face mask straps has led the RSPCA to advise people to ‘snip the straps’ when throwing away face masks3. Wet wipes, which usually contain plastic, are laid down in sediments in our rivers and oceans, sometimes forming huge ‘wet wipe reefs’ - one in the river Thames in West London is 50m long, with 201 wet wipes per square metre4.
Even responsibly disposed waste has environmental impacts. The massive increase in single use PPE and wet wipes associated with the pandemic is adding to the volume of waste being sent to landfill or burnt in incinerators.
Less obvious is what happens to face masks as they begin to break down in the environment. The filter material for three-ply masks is most commonly made of polypropylene, a fossil fuel-derived plastic that takes hundreds of years to break down. In natural environments, physical and chemical processes can result in plastic degradation with plastic pieces breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics. These small plastics can be spread through air and water and ultimately be ingested by all kinds of organisms5. Although their effects are poorly understood they are known to pose a threat to living organisms and even human health6. The microplastic fragments can indirectly affect organisms in ecosystems by absorbing other pollutants such as mercury and lead, or harmful bacteria, leading to poisoning when these microplastics are ingested by organisms, which can be transferred up the food chain7,8.
Production and transport impacts
A life cycle analysis comparison of single-use face masks and washable face coverings has revealed that the climate change impact of single-use face masks is 10 times that of washable masks9. This analysis includes production, transport, laundry and disposal of each type, and factors in the impacts of raw materials used and transport of single-use masks to the UK, predominantly from China.
A sustainable future for face coverings?
If face coverings are here to stay for the foreseeable future as seems likely, we all have a responsibility to wear them wisely. Dr Andrew Mayes, Senior Lecturer at University of East Anglia, who studies microplastic pollution in the environment, has this advice:
“It is understandable that reducing plastic waste is not at the forefront of people's minds currently, but it is really important that people are aware of the often-hidden plastics present in products.
I think that most people want to do the "right thing" but are often simply unaware of the plastic content of items such as face masks and disinfectant wipes.
Just like with carrier bags, you should use washable re-usable items wherever possible to reduce waste, and always think of the environment when you dispose of PPE.”
Dr Andrew Mayes, University of East Anglia
Official government advice in the UK promotes using washable reusable face coverings where possible, and responsible disposal of single-use face coverings10. The life cycle analysis study demonstrates that the best option for the environment is for each person to have four washable masks used in rotation and cleaned in a washing machine with other laundry . If single-use face masks are the only option in certain situations, make sure they are correctly disposed of in a general waste or clinical waste bin, so that the legacy of this pandemic is not detectable in our natural environments next year as litter, or in hundreds of years’ time as microplastic pollution.
This blog was written by Hannah Gray, GRTA Project Officer at UEA on 12 November 2020.
6. Tanaka & Takada. (2016). Microplastic fragments and microbeads in digestive tracts of planktivorous fish from urban coastal waters. Scientific Reports, 6 doi.org/10.1038/srep34351
7. Curren and Leong (2019). Profiles of bacterial assemblages from microplastics of tropical coastal environments. Science of The Total Environment, 655 doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.11.250
8. Bradney et al. (2019). Particulate plastics as a vector for toxic trace-element uptake by aquatic and terrestrial organisms and human health risk. Environment International, 131 doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.104937
From global to micro - how pandemic PPE causes long term environmental problems
The PPE used to protect us from the global pandemic is causing unintended environmental problems across the world.
Yet Yin Hee from the Malaysian Microplastic Network, set up through the GRTA project, explains how single use plastic PPE items can break down into tiny microplastics in our environment:
We’ve all read headlines like these recently:
- Growing plastic pollution in wake of COVID-19
- Face Masks, Gloves And PPE: A New Breed of Plastic Pollution
- Where did 5,500 tonnes of discarded face masks end up?
- Over 10 million face masks binned daily
- Face Masks Can Protect You From Coronaviruses But Are They Safe For Ocean Life?
And we’ve all seen photos showing face masks left as litter on the roadside and beaches, as well as divers collecting face masks and disposable gloves from the seabed. You have probably seen masks, gloves or disinfectant wipes on the ground where you live.
Two years ago, the UN declared plastic pollution a global crisis, and many countries have started schemes to reduce single-use plastic, which forms the main part of plastic waste. The fight against plastic pollution is however being hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is now over six months since Covid-19 swept across the world, causing a global increase in the use of disposable single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) including face masks and gloves. Although single-use PPE is vital in helping protect ourselves and our communities against this contagious virus, the downside is its increasing contribution to global plastic pollution.
The figures for the production of PPE are eye opening. In Malaysia, more than 115 million three-ply and N95 face masks were produced by Malaysian (108.5 million) and foreign manufacturers (6.75 million) between 1 January and 25 August 20201. With the mandatory ruling on face masks in public places since 1 August, it is estimated that 10 million single-use face masks are used and discarded every day in Malaysia. Since there is no formal system in place specifically for the disposal of face masks in Malaysia, these used face masks should end up in the landfill via general waste. However, when these face masks are not disposed properly they can pose a human health hazard by transmitting the virus2, 3 and also long-lasting environmental hazards.
Irresponsibly discarded face masks can become a litter problem on land and at sea. As well as the visual impact, the litter can cause harm to animal life through strangling, tangling and ingestion. The filter material for three-ply masks is most commonly made of the polypropylene, a fossil fuel-derived plastic that takes hundreds of years to break down. In natural environments, physical and chemical processes can result in plastic degradation with plastic artifacts breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics. These small plastics can be spread both by the air and water and ultimately be ingested by all kinds of organisms. Although their effects are poorly understood they are known to pose a threat to living organisms and even human health4.
In addition, degraded plastics can also indirectly affect ecosystems by absorbing other pollutant such as toxic chemicals (e.g. mercury and lead) from the environment and deliver them to organisms. Everyone should be concerned about microplastic pollution since Malaysia is in the top eight countries for mismanaging plastic waste5, and discarded face masks are adding to this (~1 million metric tons each year). The face masks are not only posing risks now, but the degraded components of face masks will remain in the environment and build up in the food chain for many hundreds of years to come.
The future of PPE
With Covid-19 still ongoing in our communities, the use of face masks will remain a fact of life for the foreseeable future. Environmental groups worldwide are calling on the governments to provide facilities to enable proper disposal of single-use face masks. As well as governments acting, people should be encouraged to use re-usable face masks where possible in order to reduce single-use plastic waste. Plastic litter will remain in our environment long after this pandemic has ended. The proper disposal of the associated waste will prevent it continuing to be an unwanted reminder to future generations of these challenging times.
This blog was written by Yet Yin Hee, Institute of Oceanography and Environment, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and Keith Weston, formerly Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) on 27 October 2020. Images from Media Kreatif UMT and Pixabay.
1. Bernama. (2020). https://www.astroawani.com/berita-malaysia/over-115-million-face-masks-produced-by-26-manufacturers-nanta-257339
2. Luksamijarulkul et al. (2014). Microbial Contamination on Used Surgical Masks among Hospital Personnel and Microbial Air Quality in their Working Wards: A Hospital in Bangkok. Oman Medical Journal 29. http://doi.org/10.5001/omj.2014.92
3. Chin et al. (2020). Stability of SARS-COV-2 in different environmental conditions. The Lancet Microbe 1. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2666-5247(20)30003-3
4. Tanaka & Takada. (2016). Microplastic fragments and microbeads in digestive tracts of planktivorous fish from urban coastal waters. Scientific Reports 6. http://doi.org/10.1038/srep34351 (2016)
5. Jambeck et al. (2015). Plastic waste input from land into the ocean. Science 347. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1260352
Setting up a microplastic monitoring network in Malaysia
UEA’s Global Research Translation Award is collaborating with two Malaysian universities to build a network in Malaysia for monitoring microplastic pollution.
The project seeks to better understand how marine plastic pollution is breaking down into smaller plastic components and what microplastic distribution patterns are occurring in coastal environments.
The plastic problem
Microplastics are defined as solid polymer particles less than 5mm in size and insoluble in water. Sometimes they are intentionally produced, for example as exfoliation beads in the cosmetic industry, but more often they are secondary microplastics, broken down from larger plastic items. They are resistant to biodegradation and can be ingested by zooplankton and fish, escalating up the food chain, with likely harmful consequences for wildlife and humans 1. Microplastics have also been found to harbour bacteria harmful to human health, being a potential vector for disease in the marine environment 2.
The figures around plastic pollution in the oceans are massive. Each year, it is estimated that on average 8 million tonnes of plastics are entering the ocean and Southeast Asia contributes 60% of this amount 3. The region is particularly at risk because of large populations in coastal areas and inadequate waste collection and processing infrastructure. A study by WWF found of six countries in this region, Malaysia has the highest per capita plastic use: 16.78kg per person per year 4. Malaysia also receives imports of plastic waste from developed countries, supposedly to be recycled, but which has been found in unauthorised dumps where it is burnt or allowed to enter waterways 5.
How the Malaysian microplastic network became reality
The Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) is located on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia and has a focus on marine sciences. In 2019, UMT’s Dr Yet Yin Hee (Yen) spent 6 months at UEA in Dr Andrew Mayes’ Microplastics laboratory analysing samples collected from the Straits of Malacca in Malaysia, funded through a Global Talent Research Fellowship. This fellowship opened up an opportunity for Andrew and Yen to work together on another project, the Global Research Translation Award (GRTA). Yen returned to Malaysia in January 2020 to coordinate a new Malaysian microplastic monitoring network called MyMiP, supported by funding from the GRTA project.
Dr Moritz Müller from Swinburne University of Technology joined the GRTA project as a collaborator, bringing his experience in microplastic research from Malaysian Borneo. UMT and Swinburne are heading up the project in Malaysia, with advice from Andrew in the UK through monthly video calls. In less than a year the MyMiP network has expanded to include 10 partner universities and non-governmental organisations.
A knowledge sharing network
The GRTA project funded the build and shipping of five microplastic analysis kits to Malaysia (see previous blog). These low-cost analysis kits developed by Andrew Mayes are now fully functioning in UMT and Swinburne laboratories. Andrew delivered training to researchers and students when he visited Malaysia in February 2020. The project plans to share these kits with other MyMiP institutions, although the Covid-19 pandemic is currently delaying this. Yen has filmed a video tutorial in English and Malay, ready to equip new partners to use the analysis kits when they have access to them.
A photo flow chart showing the analysis process developed by Andrew Mayes
Final images of the microplastics detected by the staining and photographic process
Data and dialogue
In September 2020, the teams at UMT and Swinburne were able to start visiting rivers and coasts to collect samples. The teams are also analysing samples collected by MyMiP partners, including WWF Malaysia, until it is possible to relocate some analysis kits to network institutions.
Although collecting and analysing microplastic data is at the heart of this work, a crucial part of the GRTA microplastics project is stakeholder engagement. UMT and Swinburne are partnering with local NGOs to organise beach litter picks, developing plastic art installations and visiting schools to educate about sorting waste for recycling and reducing single use plastics. The teams are leading webinars to share findings with the research community and producing articles for the local press to raise the profile of microplastic pollution in the wider Malaysian population.
UMT school outreach sessions before the Covid-19 lockdown
When travel restrictions are eased, filmmakers from UEA plan to visit the teams in Malaysia to produce films about the MyMiP network which can be used in educational and policy briefing settings.
The long-term objective for the MyMiP network is to provide a model for how such an approach to monitoring microplastic pollution could be extended to other countries in the region facing similar plastic pollution pressure.
This blog was written by Hannah Gray, GRTA Project Officer, UEA, on 14 October 2020. Images from Yet Yin Hee, UMT.
1. Prata et al. (2020). Environmental exposure to microplastics: An overview on possible human health effects. Science of The Total Environment 702. doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.134455
2. Curren and Leong (2019). Profiles of bacterial assemblages from microplastics of tropical coastal environments. Science of The Total Environment,655 doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.11.250
3. Jambeck et al. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347(6223): 768-771
4. WWF (2020). Plastic Packaging in Southeast Asia and China
5. Greenpeace. (2018). https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/10/21/uk-household-plastics-found-in-illegal-dumps-in-malaysia/
The GRTA Microplastics project sends analysis kits to Malaysia
In January 2020 the Global Research Translation Award (GRTA) Microplastics project sent 10 flight cases of analytical equipment from UEA to Malaysia. During 2020 the project partners will establish a microplastic monitoring network in Malaysia, to get a better understanding of microplastic pollution, and in turn to influence environmental policy.
What are microplastic analysis kits?
Dr Andrew Mayes and his team have been working over recent year to develop a low cost methodology to measure levels of microplastic pollution. The rapid analysis technique is based on staining microplastic particles with a fluorescent dye, which makes them stand out from the background of other materials when illuminated under specific lighting conditions. When coupled with simple imaging instruments, this methodology provides a complete analytical solution for laboratories with basic facilities. The kits can be used to measure levels of microplastic pollution in a range of samples, from drinking water to marine sediments.
Andrew realised this new methodology would mean a step-change for microplastic monitoring globally. Previous methodologies were either very crude and ineffective, or extremely slow and requiring complex, expensive spectroscopic instrumentation, and hence not widely available in the countries where plastic pollution is a key issue (principally South East Asia). Andrew published the methodology in 2017, open access and patent-free, to make it easy for the global community to use.
The GRTA Microplastic project
The Global Research Translation Award (GRTA) project is funded from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Innovation and Commercialisation Programme, developed to fast-track promising research findings into real-world solutions. UEA is leading a £1.36 million project to help tackle health, nutrition, education and environment issues in developing countries.
One of the GRTA sub-projects is working with Andrew to set up a microplastic monitoring network in Malaysia. Andrew has been working with a GCRF Research Fellow, Dr Yet Yin Hee from Malaysia, which created an opportunity to develop a partnership with the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and the Swinburne University of Technology in Sarawak.
Preparing and sending the kits
All the action on the GRTA microplastic project up to January 2020 happened at UEA. Yet Yin Hee and Andrew built and tested the five analysis kits, trying to re-use equipment where possible to reduce the environmental impact of the project and to keep with the low-cost spirit of the methodology. Christine Cornea, a Lecturer in Film, Television and Media, and her Research Associate Alex Smith, have been creating a video tutorial for using the analysis kit. This is being translated into Malay and will be available for the partners in Malaysia to receive instruction in how to use the equipment.
By mid January, the video had been edited and the final tests and calibrations of the five analysis kits were completed. The team were ready to pack the kits and send to Malaysia. Much simpler to write than to do!
The analysis kits contain a fair amount of glass components and fragile instrumentation. Andrew ordered ten sturdy flight cases and copious amounts of plastic bubble wrap (the irony was noted!). The team spent many hours organising the documentation required for a gift of scientific equipment to an overseas country, and a courier picked up the crates on 15 January.
What happens next?
Dr Yet Yin Hee has returned to Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and is developing connections with potential partners for the West Malaysian microplastic network. Dr Moritz Mueller at Swinburne University of Technology in Sarawak is training up students to carry out microplastic monitoring projects, and connecting with organisations for an East Malaysian microplastic network. Andrew visited Malaysia in February 2020 to provide training to both institutions, and hosted a workshop to plan aims and objectives for the Malaysian microplastic network. Christine and Alex will visit Malaysia in May to create a film about microplastic pollution in Malaysia, which will be used to raise awareness in the country and inform government departments.
This blog was written by Hannah Gray, GRTA Project Officer at University of East Anglia on 18 February 2020.
Hidden Plastics: The Teabag Experiment
Info-animation: how do microplastics get into the food chain?
Coastal and marine microplastics in Malaysia - past, present and future
Video tutorial: how to use the microplastic analysis kit