Aotearoa Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastics (AIM²)(external link) is a national research programme to determine the impacts of microplastics in New Zealand. It is the first comprehensive research investigating the impact of microplastics and the threat to New Zealand’s ecosystems, animals and people.
The collaborative research project is led by Dr Olga Pantos from ESR ( Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited ), and Dr Grant Northcott (Northcott Research Consultants Ltd) and includes researchers from the University of Auckland, University of Canterbury, the Cawthron Institute and Scion.
The five year project was awarded over $12.5 M in the 2018 round of the MBIE Endeavour Fund(external link).
The project team will be working closely with a range of primary sector industry bodies, regional councils and territorial authorities, NGOs, iwi and communities.
AIM² will significantly improve our understanding of the levels, distribution and impacts of microplastics on Aotearoa New Zealand and its unique ecosystems and taonga. It will also help to further the international knowledge and understanding in this area of research.
What are microplastics ?
Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size. They are either made for purpose (primary microplastics) such as those used in industrial processes, personal and domestic care products, glitter or the preproduction pellets (nurdles) that is how plastics is transported around the world. Microplastics can be the breakdown products (secondary microplastics) of large plastic items, from food packaging to car lights. There is estimated to be >15 trillion pieces of microplastic debris in the world’s oceans, 80% of which originate from land-based activities.
Worldwide there is increasing public and regulatory concern about the impact of microplastics on our environment, food, and health. International research demonstrates microplastics are pervasive in the environment. This problem has been likened to climate change due to its global scale and the magnitude of potential risks it poses to ecosystem health and resilience, human health, and the economy.
Dr Olga Pantos is a marine microbial ecologist who has,since completing her degree in marine and environmental biology, studied the impacts of anthropogenic stressors on marine ecosystems.
She was a panel member of the PM’s Chief Science Advisor’s Rethinking Plastics(external link) project and on the scientific advisory panel for the UNEA’s Marine Litter and Microplastics Expert Group(external link).
Dr Grant Northcott is an environmental analytical chemist with expertise on the fate and effects of organic contaminants in the environment as demonstrated by his lead role in current MBIE and SSIF-funded programs and will lead the contaminant research component.
This program will develop a nationwide overview of contemporary microplastic pollution in New Zealand (NZ) and assess the risk microplastics present to our environment, economy and well-being.
Determining microplastic pollution from water, sediment and biota of freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems.
The project has selected two geographically distinct case study sites which are subject to different human impacts and potential microplastic sources. Both sites integrate biophysical research with cultural, community and stakeholder engagement.
Metropolitan urban. The Whau River catchment is located in Auckland, NZ’s largest city. This catchment includes urban and industrial areas and contains some of metropolitan Auckland’s highest anthropogenic pollutant concentrations, reflecting a range of inputs (urban stormwater, commercial/industrial site runoff, combined sewage overflows, urban litter).
Mixed productive land use. A catchment will be selected in the Nelson-Tasman region to provide a “mountain-to-sea” study site with headwaters originating in DOC estate and exotic forest before entering the plains, one of NZ’s most productive horticultural areas.
Determining microplastic pollution risks
To address microplastic impacts, we will focus on how microplastics act as a direct chemical contaminant source, adsorb contaminants and make them bioavailable, and microbial interactions in these processes.
This work will link to studies defining the ecotoxicology and ecological effects of microplastics in
Interactions between plastics and the environment
The way plastics interact with the environment can affect their risk to ecosystem and animal health. To look at the some of the ways plastics can affect our marine environment we are running a series of experiments where we put plastics out into the sea and look at what starts living on their surface, and what chemicals become associated with them. We are also look at how these things can affect the plastics themselves, for example are the things that grow on them assisting with their breakdown.
Between March and August 2019 a pilot study was conducted at the Port of Lyttelton, Christchurch, to look at the biofilms that develop on two different plastics, Nylon and oxo-PE, which are commonly found in marine litter. The samples from this experiment are currently being analysed.