STOP! : Survey Techniques for Observing Plastics

The year has started off with a big bang, as PhD candidate Steve Allen of the ACU Blue Charter Fellowship and Dr Deonie Allen teamed up with SST member Kerry Moss to shed light on the plastic crisis in Africa. Steve Allen and Dr Deonie Allen, from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, joined Sustainable Seas Trust (SST) in January 2019 as part of the African Waste Academy’s Young Leaders and Expert Exchange programme.

Currently, only four percent of the published plastic research in the world is on Africa. Expanding and contributing to research on Africa, Steve, Deonie and Kerry set off to create a baseline of how much micro- and macro-plastic is found in the rivers, on the river banks, and in coastal areas of Port Elizabeth. They designed a simple protocol, and with SST, are undertaking an African wide river-to-sea focused plastics assessment.

This simple protocol incorporates two methods of collecting plastic waste data: the RIMMEL plastic pollution monitoring app, and a net. The net is suspended from a bridge into the river to capture plastics flowing out to sea. It is fastened in place and monitored for 2 hours over the fastest outgoing tide. While the net is in the water, the team records plastic waste floating down the river using the RIMMEL app. Swartkops River Estuary was their first site, where during their time on the Wyle Colour Bridge, a few of the locals approached the team. They expressed their interests in having a clean environment and shared their concerns regarding the state of the Swartkops River Estuary, such as the Motherwell outflow and not being able to fish or swim in the river. Once the 2 hour bridge survey was completed, they moved onto surveying along the Swartkops River banks.

Although the project is still in the early stages, concerning results have already surfaced. The team found 80 pieces of macro-plastics floating on the river surface per day using the RIMMEL App, and using the net, 3000 macro-micro plastic pieces were found flowing in the water column per day! Food packaging such as sweet wrappers, cellophane, chip packets etc., were the major contributors of plastic waste found along the Swartkops River banks. “Without comparative data on the other rivers it is difficult to know if the plastic waste is exceptionally bad,” says Steve. “But the numbers we are seeing indicate a serious problem that needs to be addressed.”

Steve, Deonie and Kerry have since moved onto the Sundays River and will include the Baakens Valley River in their later surveys. This data will feed into adapting mitigation strategies for cleaning up the rivers, banks and coastal regions of Africa, including local community engagement and waste education. As Steve said, “if the bath tub is overflowing, you don’t reach for a mop, you turn off the tap”.

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