Soggy Switzerland for Microplastics 2018

At the end of October I went to Ascona, Switzerland for 5 days to be part of the Nano and microplastics in technical and freshwaters systems – Microplastics2018 Conference. Speakers specialising in microplastics were invited from all over the world to attend the conference. I saw it as a brilliant opportunity to learn how such an event works and meet like-minded people in my field, let alone the main researchers in the microplastic world. I travelled there by myself, having little experience, but always felt welcome and included. Although I have mainly a marine biology background I was excited to learn more about freshwater environments and technical aspects of researching microplastics. We were trapped in a thunder storm for pretty much the entire time! – I’ve never seen so much rain in my life!

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The aim of the conference was to bring leading scientists researching releases, sources, uptakes and toxicity of microplastics and representatives from government and industry to discuss and provide a context on how plastics are used today and how they may be regulated in the future. I not only witnessed presentations from a variety of people, and a poster session but I also had the chance to engage in group discussions concerning exposure, stakeholder interactions and risk assessment (in addition to lots of networking and drinks!).

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The main issues discussed that I was particularly interested in included:

  • Life cycle assessment of alternative materials to plastics – are cotton/natural fibres really better than synthetic? Natural fibres often increase water consumption and animal welfare but are washed less and last longer.
  • The need for Western countries to shown more responsibility in regard to plastic consumption
  • A need for understanding the source of plastic pollution – we can learn a lot from river systems due to uni-directional flow and it is easier to identify sources. However this has high spatial-temporal variability due to seasonal changes that must be taken into account
  • A need to communicate levels of uncertainty to prevent exaggeration by media
  • A need for standardisation of monitoring
  • Risk assessments – need better understanding of fate and effect of microplastic in order to better inform risk assessments
  • Bias for what microplastics are tested and what is actually found in environments
  • Use of the precautionary principle and a need for using plastics in a more responsible circular way
  • A need for science to provide evidence to inform decisions in industry and policy

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Are we draining attention away from other environmental issues?

A topic that was particularly interesting and one that I had not thought about in such a way was that although the public engagement with plastic pollution is brilliant and carries a lot of momentum, is it drawing much needed attention away from other environmental issues such as global warming? This was brought up by Martin Wagner from NTNU and created a lot of debate.

I agree with Martin that there are bigger environmental issues facing the world. I believe there is a lot more public engagement with plastic pollution as it is an issue the public can be more hands on with. The images of cute animals struggling against plastic entangled around them also pulls at peoples’ hearts making them want to be more responsible. Many people have therefore started using keep-cups and reusable water bottles, attended beach cleans and tried to reduce their single-use plastic consumption and feel they are really helping the issue. Hopefully this increase in public engagement of environmental problems can be extended to other issues such as deforestation, climate change and global warming. There is a need to harness the current interest in the environmental issues while the public, political and scientific worlds are all aligned.

Michael Sander raised an important point stating that “microplastic is an opportunity for us to re-learn how to use resources effectively”. Hopefully we will not make the same mistake again, being so careless with our resources.

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Take-home thoughts

I learnt so much at Microplastics 2018, which gave me numerous ideas for my own research. This included:

  • What happens to microplastics before they reach the sea? Is the release of an additive governed by the polymer properties? What effects fragmentation to form microplastics?  Is there a link between the ageing of polymers, release of additives and formation of micro and nano particles?
  • Weathering must effect fragmentation – is there a seasonal variation in microplastic concentrations between the wet and dry seasons of Vietnam?
  • Do the properties of microplastics such as density, biofilms and charge have an effect on fate of microplastics? Does polymer type effect interactions with other particles? There is a need to understand the relationship between surface properties and environmental interactions.
  • One researcher showed the uptake of microplastics by wheat – are rice crops in Vietnam exposed to microplastics, especially after flooding?
  • A need to understand the fate of microplastics after exposure and uptake

I felt really inspired when I came home from Switzerland and ready for my first field trip to Vietnam which was only a day later! I can’t wait for the next conference, maybe I’ll even have some work of my own to present at it…

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