Impacts of marine plastic pollution in south-east Asia researched

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Leading environmental and research agencies in the UK and in Singapore have announced funding support for four innovative international research collaborations that will investigate how to reduce the impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems in south-east Asia.

The research collaborations represent a £6 million investment by:

  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF)
  • UK government funding supported by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The projects are part of the Understanding the Impact of Plastic Pollution on Marine Ecosystems in south-east Asia (South-East Asia Plastics (SEAP) programme) and will take place over three years, beginning in October 2020.

Mitigation measures needed

The aim of the programme is to support collaborations between researchers in the UK, Singapore and the wider south-east Asia region. This will increase our understanding of the impacts and risks of plastics in marine ecosystems (including mangroves, coral reefs and beaches) and the essential services these ecosystems provide, in order to support the development of mitigation measures.

The four projects will research (see full details in in the winning projects list below):

  • the life cycle and dispersion of plastics in water, sediment and coastal habitats and investigate the impacts of wildlife-plastic interactions
  • how to create a novel mapping tool to track marine plastic litter and investigate how it changes and interacts with ecosystems as it travels from source to sink
  • to investigate the role of microorganisms in plastic pollution breakdown and explore how they may help provide a solution to the pollution problem
  • how different types of plastic pollution are broken down and how this breakdown affects toxicity and impacts on marine life.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, NERC Executive Chair, said:

“Plastic pollution is a growing threat to marine environments across the globe. These innovative projects will not only help us understand the impact plastic has on marine ecosystems in south-east Asia but they could also find solutions to this challenge.

“These awards provide further evidence of NERC’s commitment to funding excellent, world-leading research in environmental sciences both in the UK and internationally. Our investment in international development research aims to positively impact the lives of millions of people across the world and supports global efforts to achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.”

Professor Low Teck Seng, NRF Chief Executive Officer, said:

“Plastic pollution poses severe consequences to ocean health and biodiversity, and is an acute problem in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region today. The NRF Singapore is pleased to partner with NERC to support the SEAP programme.

“The insights gleaned from these projects will support policymakers and managers of marine ecosystems in south-east Asia in developing interventions, as well as mitigation and adaptation measures, to reduce the environmental damage from marine plastics. These programme outcomes will contribute to the region’s efforts in protecting and preserving our marine biodiversity.”

Further information

UK funding for this programme is supported by BEIS through the International Climate Finance (ICF) programme, a UK government commitment to support developing countries to respond to the challenges and opportunities of climate change.

ICF forms part of the UK’s official development assistance (ODA) commitment, and funding under this call will be awarded in a manner consistent with ODA guidelines.

Winning projects

Risks and Solutions: Marine Plastics in Southeast Asia – RaSP-SEA

Led by Professor Brendan Godley, University of Exeter and Dr Suresh Valiyaveettil, National University of Singapore (in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand).

NERC support: £714,136.53

This project will assess the life cycle and dispersion of plastics in water, sediment and key coastal habitats, identifying key categories of plastic pollution to identify possible sources and using oceanographic modelling to inform the origin and movement of plastic debris.

The project will assess the impacts of plastic on fish and shellfish and its transfer to the human food chain as well as assessing impacts on ecosystem services by creating a baseline of wildlife-plastic interactions.

Researchers will investigate multiple potential mitigation measures focused on preventing plastic reaching the marine environment or recovery of plastic from the environment.

South East Asia Marine Plastics (SEAmap): Reduction, Control and Mitigation of Marine Plastic Pollution in the Philippines

Led by Dr Srikanth Narasimalu, Nanyang Technological University and Professor Simon Neill, Bangor University (in Philippines).

NERC support: £696,686.99

This project aims to develop a relocatable and open source impact mapping tool for marine plastic litter. It will help map potential sources and sinks and track pathways of plastic in the environment, investigate how plastic litter changes and interacts with ecosystems as it travels from source to sink, and assess the impacts of this interaction on those ecosystems. This impact mapping tool is intended to provide a policy and strategic framework for stakeholders to improve plastic waste management and inform effective impact reduction measures.

Microbial transformation of plastics in SE Asian seas: a hazard and a solution

Led by Simon Cragg, University of Portsmouth and Dr Bin Cao, Nanyang Technological University (in Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam).

NERC support: £699,193.17

This project will investigate how microorganisms living on plastic surfaces affect the pollution threat from plastics, and will explore how these microorganisms may provide a solution to the problem.

The project will examine how microorganisms contribute to plastic breakdown and how this then determines the fate of plastic waste in the marine environment.

Researchers will measure the impacts of ‘plastispheres’ (the combination of plastic and the microorganisms that live on it) on marine environments and characterise the hazard posed to ecosystems.

Solutions for removing plastics from the environment will be investigated, including the potential use of enzymes that exist in biofilms in bioengineered recycling.

Sources, impacts and solutions for plastics in South East Asia coastal environments

Led by Professor Federico Lauro, Nanyang Technological University and Dr Sabine Matallana Surget, University of Stirling (in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand).

NERC support: £710,578.49

This project will investigate biodegradation of microplastics, as well as the co-pollutant potential and toxicity linked to the attachment of organic pollutants or pathogens to plastic particles.

The project will look at impacts of these plastic particles on multiple trophic levels, from microbial communities on the plastic surface to bivalves and fish, using state of the art techniques.

Transport pathways and seasonal hotspots of microplastics across south-east Asia will also be mapped and modelled. This research aims to inform development of new policies around sustainable production, biorecycling and food safety.

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