Impacts of plastic pollution measured in new Lyttleton trial.
Scientists are investigating the impact of plastics on our marine environment in a new project that has recently got underway in Lyttleton harbour.
The project – called AIM² (Aotearoa Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastics) is the first comprehensive research investigating the impact of microplastics on New Zealand’s environment.
Scientists from ESR have deployed plastics onto a pontoon in Lyttleton harbour to see what grows on them, what chemical pollutants are taken up and concentrate upon them, and the changes that occur to the plastic itself.
It is estimated there are over 15 trillion pieces of microplastic debris in the world’s oceans, 80 per cent of which originate from land-based activities.
Lead ESR scientist Olga Pantos says the problem is similar to climate change due to its global scale and the broad array of potential risks it poses to ecosystem health and resilience, human health and biosecurity.
Two types of plastic are being trialled - nylon and polyethylene - both commonly found in the marine environment, often in the form of fishing gear and food packaging.
As well as measuring the impacts, Dr Pantos says scientists are also looking at bacteria and fungi that may be degrading the plastics and the mechanisms they are using, with the hope of finding some solutions to the plastic pollution problem.
The trial is part of a five-year MBIE funded project investigating the impacts of microplastics and the threat to New Zealand’s ecosystems, animals and people.
The project led by ESR and Northcott Research Consultants includes scientists from University of Auckland, University of Canterbury, Scion and the Cawthron Institute along with primary industry, regional councils, iwi and communities.
Research programmes in Europe, Australia and North America have confirmed the presence of microplastics in a range of environments, and their long-term impacts on organisms.
In New Zealand, scientists, regulators and Māori are increasingly concerned about the impacts of microplastics on our unique species and ecosystems, tāonga, and human health. While initial national data shows that New Zealand’s coastal and freshwater environments and biota are contaminated, there is limited information to assess the risk microplastics pose.
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ESR is the Crown Research Institute which keeps New Zealand communities safe and healthy through intelligent science. It specialises in water and the environment, public health, food safety and forensic science.