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.

Microplastic blog

On 8 and 9 December 2021, the GRTA Microplastics project hosted an online symposium to share experiences and findings from setting up the Malaysian Microplastics Network, and hearing from similar initiatives in SE Asia.

We enjoyed two days of rich discussion about data, engagement and collaboration. Here are five take home messages from the event:  

  • We agree that the value of regional microplastic monitoring networks is very high - the benefits of working together justify the time and effort involved in creating and maintaining collaboration.
  • We need to expand networks and research projects to include a diverse range of stakeholders, including policy makers, NGOs, industry, community groups and artists.
  • We recognise the constraints of collecting and analysing microplastic data for some countries and need to design monitoring guidelines and programmes appropriately, paying attention to ensure consistency and comparability wherever possible.
  • We should collect data that policy makers need to evidence their decision making, we must design systems to make sure this data is easily accessible to those who need to use it.
  • We want to integrate community engagement and education opportunities into research projects and network activities, and we will seek to harness the potential of conventional media, social media and local champions to raise awareness of plastic pollution.

 

Day 2 Discussion focused on how the networks and inititatives can grow and support each other going forwards. 
Day 2 Discussion focused on how the networks and initiatives can grow and support each other going forwards. 

 

Congratulations for having organised this wonderful get-together; bridging scientists, NGOs and policy makers - an essential collaborative direction to tackling marine litter/ microplastics! Will be looking forward to continuing the engagements hereon. (Malaysian Policymaker)

All sessions from the symposium are on the MyMiP YouTube channel in this playlist: Microplastics Symposium December 2021.

The BBC ‘War on Plastic’ documentary highlighted the hidden plastics in teabags from well-known brands, featuring UEA Associate Professor Andrew Mayes and his research group. Since then, the Mayes group, UEA students and partners have tested more teabag brands, scrutinised coffee bags, and even explored hidden plastics in products outside the UK. Read on to find out if you have plastic skeletons hiding in your cupboard or compost heap!

 

The trouble with teabags

Over 100 million cups of tea are drunk every day in the UK, of which 96% are brewed using teabags1. Depending on their shape (Figure 1) and production methods, teabags may contain different types of plastic, typically used to seal the bags around the edges. The most frequently used plastics are polypropylene, nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). These are thermoplastics regularly used for food packaging and household items, although their presence may be ‘hidden’ or unknown to consumers. Unfortunately, these plastics are often mixed with other materials rendering them unrecyclable and intact in the environment for hundreds of years after disposal.

Figure 1. Teabags come in many forms and shapes: some of the most common ones are the pillow shaped ones (middle), pyramid that can be made of a mesh (left) or paper material, and folded which can be stitched with a staple (right) or just sealed with the string.
Figure 1. Teabags have many forms and shapes:  pillow (middle), pyramid made of a mesh (left) or paper material, and folded stitched with a staple (right) or without.

 

In 2019, Dr Andrew Mayes and his group investigated the plastic content of some tea brands for the BBC ‘War on Plastic’ documentary series. The documentary aired in 2020 and exposed a few of the most popular brands known in the UK. Partly because of this media attention, alongside a trend to remove undesirable plastics from consumer products as public awareness increases, more companies pledged to switch to sustainable teabag materials. For example, some brands have joined others in using polylactic acid (PLA) to seal their “pillow-type” bags. PLA is still a plastic, but it is made from lactic acid, produced by fermenting cornstarch or other organic materials. This has two advantages for the environment, firstly, PLA is not produced from polluting petrochemicals and, secondly, PLA is biodegradable by micro-organisms in the environment. Although PLA’s rate of decomposition is slow, it is definitely a step towards a more sustainable solution.

A clip of the BBC documentary was posted on YouTube, where many users expressed curiosity and a desire for more detailed information, so they could identify which brands contain which types of plastic, and if any brands had swapped materials since the original round of testing in 2019. As a result, Mayes and his group are now re-assessing brands previously analysed, and expanding the range to include UK supermarket branded teabags.

 

The experiment

The researchers use preliminary infra-red (IR) spectroscopy to provide a “chemical fingerprint” for each teabag. Sometimes IR spectroscopy struggles to determine the presence of plastic due to the paper component of the tea bag, so another step is required.

They submerge the tea bags in a copper ammonia solution (Figure 2) that dissolves the paper material (cellulose), as shown by Andrew Mayes in this short video. If the teabag does not contain plastic, then the bag will be entirely dissolved in the solution. Similarly, PLA is degraded by the strong alkaline solution, so if the bag contained PLA, it would dissolve too. Any non-biodegradable plastics in the teabags do not dissolve, so these materials can be retrieved, washed and analysed. The team also weigh the empty teabag before and after the copper ammonium process to calculate the ratio of non-degradable plastic to paper.

Figure 2. Dr Andrew Mayes investigating the plastic content of teabags in the laboratory.

 

Comparing 2019 findings with 2021 results

 Table 1. Teabag brands tested in 2019 and their respective material composition


Dorset Tea and Yorkshire Tea used polypropylene in 2019 and now have successfully switched to PLA and Cellulose Acetate respectively (Table 1, Table 2). In addition, Tetley Cold Infusion have also switched from using PET to using PLA, along with PG Tips, and Teapigs which have carried on using PLA. To date, Pukka remains the only tested brand being entirely plastic free. However, 21 of the 35 brands tested in 2021 contained plastics (Table 2). Polypropylene is currently the most prevalent plastic material. However, some manufacturers appear to be using a selection of materials, with Marks & Spencer and Tesco using polypropylene and PLA within their products. PLA is the most used biodegradable plastic within the brands we tested and is present in 11 out of the 14 biodegradable tea and coffee bags.

Table 2. Teabag brands tested in 2021 and their respective material composition.

The results of the 2021 investigation are worrying because 61% of bags we analysed still contain non-biodegradable plastic. However the changes to more sustainable materials by some of the brands analysed in 2019 is encouraging. In June 2021, Sainsbury’s announced it will be making teabags compostable by the end of the year, as well as removing the plastic wrapping from tea boxes. Let’s hope this causes a domino effect on other supermarkets and the whole tea industry.

 

Comparing UK results with Malaysian tea and coffee bags

How does the use of plastic in teabags in the UK compare with other countries?

UEA is working with two partners in Malaysia, Swinburne University of Technology and Universiti Terengganu Malaysia (UMT) on a microplastic monitoring research project (Global Research Translation Award). They have also been exploring the presence of plastics in tea and coffee on sale in Malaysia. All the tea and coffee brands assessed by the collaborator were different to the UK ones, however some overarching conclusions and comparisons can be inferred.

Swinburne investigated more brands of coffee bags than UEA, because use of coffee bags is more widespread in Malaysia. The plastic skeletons of the coffee bags contributed 30% of the  total weight on average. In contrast, the two brands of UK coffee bags fully dissolved in the copper ammonia solution.

Swinburne University of technology investigated six brands of tea bags. Four teabags fully dissolved, while two were left with plastic skeletons. The percentage of plastic contained in these teabags was 35% and 38% respectively.

UMT sent eleven different Malaysian teabags packs to UEA for analysis. The results were really encouraging: nine out of ten brands were biodegradable (Table 3).

Table 3. Teabag brands sold in Malaysia and their material composition.

 

Using purchasing power to push for plastic-free products

Plastic is present in a variety of items, but it is particularly problematic if consumers are unaware of its presence. If non-biodegradable tea and coffee bags are not disposed of properly, they will end up in soils and eventually breakdown into microplastics, contributing to the plastic pollution problem.

This research provides consumers up to date information on which brands are still using unsustainable materials. The findings suggest that the issue is more widespread than many people realised. The UK is not the only country hiding plastic tea and coffee bag skeletons in the cupboard.

Consumers can use their purchasing power to push for change, but many brands do not state on their packaging what materials they use. With correct information, consumers can lobby their favourite brand to become plastic-free, or swap to another brand which uses biodegradable materials. Companies may need to speed up transition to plastic-free materials to hold on to their market share.

 

Some clarifications on common terms

Biodegradable: refers to materials that can be broken down by bacteria, fungi or microbes. However, WRAP UK advises against using ‘biodegradable’ when referring to plastics, as misleading2. In fact, some items may take a long time to biodegrade and may also not biodegrade in all environments/conditions. However, for the purpose of this blog we have used the word biodegradable to indicate the brands that use biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials.

Cellulose Acetate: typically made from wood pulp, it is a derivative of a natural plant polymer and it is biodegradable, though this can be quite slow in some environments.  Most cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate fibre.

Compostable: which can be made into compost. It should be noted that there are two types of composting: 1. Home composting, i.e. that can be done at home under normal conditions and, 2. Industrial composting, that use large-scale professional facilities dealing with organic waste treatment. All compostable plastics are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable plastics are compostable.  Industrial composting facilities generate much higher temperatures in very large heaps and this helps some types of plastic (e.g. PLA) to break down quite rapidly (e.g. 4-6 weeks).  In a home composting environment PLA may take several years to degrade.

Nylon: synthetic polymer derived from petroleum hydrocarbons. It is part of the polyamides, a group of high performance and resistance plastics, used for many purposes, from engineering to clothing and carpet fibres.

PET: polyethylene terephthalate is a thermoplastic polymer normally used in fibres for clothing, food packaging and many plastic drink bottles. PET’s raw materials are derived from crude oil and natural gas3.

PLA: biodegradable polyester produced from lactic acid, which is in turn produced by fermenting organic materials such as corn starch. PLA should not be referred to as ‘plastic free’ because it is still a plastic. PLA should be disposed of food waste bins collected by the council for industrial composting. WRAP UK advises against home composting PLA material due to its slow rate of decomposition under the cool conditions usually encountered in home compost heaps.  It will eventually degrade, however.

Plant Based material: very often you’ll see some tea packages saying “our teabags are plant based / made out of corn starch”. This often refers to bioplastics such as PLA, which is a biopolymer made using fermenting materials such as corn starch. Read more on PLA below.

Plastic Free: all materials that are free of any types of plastics, being biodegradable or non-biodegradable plastics.

Polymer: a chemical compound that contains a large number of  molecular repeating units. A plastic material is made from polymer(s).

Polypropylene: synthetic polymer derived from petroleum hydrocarbons. It is commonly used for margarine tubs and microwaveable meal trays.

Sustainable material: any material that positively impacts the environment throughout its life cycle.

 

This blog was written by Elettra Spadola (GRTA Project Administrator and UEA MSc Environmental Science student) on 23 November 2021. Blog edited by Hannah Gray (GRTA Project Officer) and Andrew Mayes (GRTA Microplastics sub-project PI and Associate Professor at the School of Chemistry, UEA).

1 https://www.tea.co.uk/tea-facts

2 https://wrap.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-12/The-UK-Plastics-Pact-Annual-Report-19-20.pdf

3 http://www.petresin.org/pdf/PET_whatisitandwheredoesitcomefrom.pdf

You are invited to attend an online symposium titled ‘Microplastics in Malaysia and the wider SE Asia context’ on Wednesday 8 December and Thursday 9 December 2021. 

Each half-day session will be 4 hours, at 07:00-11:00 GMT UK time, 15:00-19:00 Malaysian time.  

The symposium is hosted by the University of East Anglia’s Global Research Translation Award, which has supported the establishment of a microplastics monitoring network in Malaysia.  

Day 1, on Wednesday 8 December, will focus on Microplastics in Malaysia, reviewing the progress of the recently established Malaysian Microplastic Network (MyMiP) and discussing how monitoring of microplastic pollution can feed into advocacy, education and policy.  

Day 2, on Thursday 9 December, will focus on Microplastics in SE Asia, highlighting existing and upcoming microplastic monitoring initiatives around the region and further afield, and discussing how these initiatives can connect and support each other going forwards.  

To register for the event, please send an email to grta@uea.ac.uk.

The UK government's Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) funding has kick-started a Malaysian microplastic monitoring network. UEA is working with academics, industry partners and policy-makers in Malaysia to quantify the distribution of microplastics and assess the environmental risks. 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.

The Microplastic 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 humans1. Microplastics have also been found to harbour bacteria harmful to human health, being a potential vector for disease in the marine environment2

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 amount3. 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 year4

Plastic rubbish washed up on a beach at Terengganu, Malaysia, February 2020
Plastic rubbish washed up on a beach at Terengganu, Malaysia, February 2020


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 waterways5. The pandemic has increased this problem, with vast quantities of single use PPE like face masks turning up in rivers and on beaches.

An innovative monitoring solution for global south countries
Counting microplastics in water and sediments is challenging. Dr Andrew Mayes has previously developed a cheap and quick methodology to analyse samples for microplastic contamination6. This research project established through Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) funding has enabled the Malaysian partners to receive five of these innovative analysis kits for distribution among the newly established Malaysian Microplastic Network (MyMiP). The two Malaysian partners have also received funding from this project to employ Research Associates to gather samples from ecosystems in their coastal locations and analyse these in the laboratory using two of the analysis kits. The remaining three analysis kits have been distributed to other research facilities in the MyMiP network who are starting microplastics monitoring programmes, some of which are funded by the Malaysian government, demonstrating how GRTA funding can stimulate more research than it directly funds.

A photo flow chart showing the analysis process developed by Dr Andrew Mayes
A photo flow chart showing the analysis process developed by Dr Andrew Mayes


Sharing the knowledge
Dr Yet Yin Hee from UMT spent a year at UEA working in Dr Mayes’ lab through a Global Talent Research Fellowship supported by UEA’s Quality-related GCRF. During this time, she presented a multilingual video manual produced by the GRTA filmmaking team, to inform researchers how to use the analysis kit and ensure consistency of practice for data comparisons. The partners have set up a MyMiP website and YouTube channel for their network and are raising awareness in local schools and communities about plastic pollution. Filmmakers at UEA are collaborating with videographers in Malaysia to co-produce a public information film describing microplastic problems and showcasing research findings to the general public and policy influencers.

Yet Yin Hee presents the video manual available for researchers to view on YouTube
Yet Yin Hee presents the video manual available for researchers to view on YouTube


Widening the research question with Rapid Response funding
This GRTA funding has stimulated a complementary project through UEA’s Rapid Response ODA funding. The two Malaysian partners are analysing samples from tap water and bottled water to ascertain the quantity of microplastics in drinking water supplies, for which there is currently no Malaysian data. They have provided equipment and training to teams from WWF Malaysia, who are collecting water samples from 100 villages spread across the country. A subset of samples is being sent to UEA for cross-validation purposes and identification of polymer types, using spectroscopic equipment not available in Malaysia. Knowing polymer types helps to pinpoint potential sources of pollution, providing valuable information for local ministries and agencies to plan mitigation strategies.

Impact beyond GRTA: using this model in other countries
The success of this model to kick-start a microplastic monitoring network in Malaysia (even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic) has led the partners to apply for funding through the GCRF UKRI-JST-DOST programme, to replicate the process in Thailand, and the Philippines, with support of additional partners in Japan, who will deliver complementary capability in drone-based plastic litter assessment. Furthermore, Dr Mayes is advising a new Pan-African Microplastics Network on how to effectively set up analysis kits and partnership working based on experience from this Malaysian project. This GRTA ODA funding has clear impact beyond the project itself; indeed it has significance for capacity building of researchers in the global south. Importantly, this project is raising awareness of the detrimental effects of plastic waste in the environment through collaborative research and education.

This report was written by Hannah Gray, GRTA Project Officer, on 11 May 2021.

References:
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.
doi.org/10.1126/science.1260352
4.    WWF (2020). Plastic Packaging in Southeast Asia and China
5.    Greenpeace. (2018). UK household plastics found in illegal dumps in Malaysia
6.    Maes, T., Jessop, R., Wellner, N., Haupt, K., & Mayes, A. G. (2017). A rapid-screening approach to detect and quantify microplastics based on fluorescent tagging with Nile Red. Scientific Reports 7. doi.org/10.1038/srep44501

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.

Face mask on pavement. Image by Roksana Helscher from Pixabay

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.

Microplastics

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. 

Washable facemasks. Image by Innviertlerin from Pixabay

This blog was written by Hannah Gray, GRTA Project Officer at UEA on 12 November 2020.

1. UK sending 1.6 billion face masks to landfill every month 
2. 194,000,000,000 face masks spark fear of ‘global plastic crisis'
3. RSPCA says ‘snip the straps’ off face masks as Autumn Clean Cymru places focus on litter
4. 23 thousand wet wipes discovered on stretch of Thames river bank
5. Microplastics in the food chain - mini animation
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
9. New publication on single-use masks
10. Face coverings: when to wear one, exemptions, and how to make your own
11. New publication on single-use masks

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.  

face-mask-on-pavement. Image by 마스크맨 from Pixabay
Face mask on pavement. Image by 마스크맨 from Pixabay 

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.  

seagull-5264694_640 Image by blandinejoannic from Pixabay.jpg
Seagull with plastic glove. Image by blandinejoannic from Pixabay

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.  

Face masks collected from a Malaysian beach during a beach clean event. Image by Media Kreatif UMT.
Face masks collected from a Malaysian beach during a beach clean event. Image by Media Kreatif UMT

Environmental impacts 

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). Over 115 million face masks produced by 26 manufacturers - Nanta
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
5. Jambeck et al. (2015). Plastic waste input from land into the ocean. Science 347. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1260352 

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 
A photo flow chart showing the analysis process developed by Andrew Mayes

Final images of the microplastics detected by the staining and photographic process 
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 
UMT school outreach sessions before the Covid-19 lockdown

Future work
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
doi.org/10.1126/science.1260352
4.  WWF (2020). Plastic Packaging in Southeast Asia and China
5.  Greenpeace. (2018). UK household plastics found in illegal dumps in 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.  

Watch a short video about the methodology

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.  

The imaging part of the analysis kit

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. 

The GRTA team pack the analysis kits

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.

Microplastic films

 

Microsplastics Symposium