Understanding the distribution, sources and impacts of plastics is essential.
These are the reasons for the launch of the Laboratory for Microplastics and Coastal Research (MCR) in the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) this week.
The lab forms part of the Joint Marine Lab programme, a collaboration between the Department of Science and Innovation, the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (NRF-SAIAB), the National Research Foundation and four coastal universities – UWC, University of Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu University and the University of Zululand.
At UWC, from 2021-2025 and totalling R4.6-million, the investment has been used partly to buy specialised equipment, including the Bruker LUMOS II compact standalone FT-IR imaging microscope. The microscope is used to determine the polymers of macro- and micro-plastics found in estuaries and other coastal zones.
The lab will contribute knowledge to the achieving of various United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 3 (Good health and well-being), Goal 6 (Clean water and Sanitation), Goal 13 (Climate Action), Goal 14 (Life below water) and Goal 15 (Life on land).
UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, commended stakeholders for their confidence in the University to lead the research, saying, "Today, we celebrate the importance of partnerships that result in action and research investment."
Prof Pretorius said that UWC's research reputation has grown over the years, from one SARChI chair in 2008 to 18 currently. He said the University was committed to realising the SDGs.
"We are, therefore, very excited to watch the research development from the new lab and the impact it will have on at least one of the SGDs," he said.
Professor Anusha Rajkaran is the principal investigator at the MCR. Their work on establishing the health of mangrove forests has led to new research emerging about the impact of microplastics on coastal environments.
She presented various research that UWC has been conducting and said the aim was to provide South Africa with the baseline assessment of microplastics within marine and coastal environments.
"From an estuarine point of view, we know very little about where microplastics are depositing, in which species they are depositing and which component of the estuary we are going to find them,” said Prof Rajkaran.
Dr Clifford Nxomani, Deputy CEO: National Research Infrastructure Platforms at NRF, said there had been only a few black people involved in marine science, and the launch of the lab was part of their strategy for a transformed, globally-competitive workforce in knowledge generation.
However, he said even though the institutions involved in the Joint Marine Lab programme were previously disadvantaged, they had strategic development plans and easily fitted into the picture.
Dr Nxomani said the NRF also wanted science that added value and improved the quality of life for society, and society must relate to science.
"If we know better, we can do better for ourselves and generations to come,” he said.