Top pollution scientist in Bay
Team test-driving new EU app that measures amount of plastic flowing in rivers
The Association of Commonwealth Universities has deployed a top Australian scientist to Nelson Mandela Bay to test-drive the European Union’s new Rimmel plastic pollution monitoring app.
Working with the Port Elizabeth-based Sustainable Seas Trust and representative Kerry Moss, Steve Allen is using the digital application together with a custom-made net to monitor and log the plastic pollution in Bay rivers.
It is an important step towards standardising a method that will be rolled out across Africa, which is presently a black hole as far as data on plastic pollution is concerned.
It was also a fundamental move towards tackling a problem that had become a global crisis, Allen said this week.
“We need to work out where this plastic pollution is going, where it is right now and where it’s not.
“Further to that, we need to quantify it in order to inform policy. Politicians need numbers,” Allen said.
“Rather than telling them there’s lots of plastic in the Bay, we need to be able to tell them exactly how many tons are out there.
“We also need a baseline so that when clearing and consumer reduction start, we can see if we are improving and making an impact.”
Allen – whose work on atmospheric micro-plastics and “plastic rain” on the summit of Europe’s Pyrenees mountains is due to be published in the journal Nature Geoscience later in February – was sent to the Bay as a member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities’ Blue Charter Fellowship.
The fellowship focuses on engagement and the exchange of knowledge among Commonwealth countries.
The Riverine and Marine Floating Macro-Litter Monitoring and Modelling of Environmental Loading (Rimmel) app was devised as citizen science and it was therefore as simple as it was effective, he said.
“You can use it to gauge various kinds of visual pollution in rivers or in the sea. We are concentrating on plastic pollution and focusing on rivers, spending 10 days on each.
“We have worked on the Swartkops and Sundays rivers and will move to the Baakens and several other rivers in the region,” he said.
Taking up position on a bridge, the team selected a track width to monitor and then for each piece of plastic spotted various details were tapped into the app, including what kind of item it appeared to be and what size it was.
In tandem with Rimmel, the team has been using a special net to catch pieces of floating and submerged plastic.
The 2m X 1m net with 2mm holes was designed by Moss and then handed over to a local engineering firm to build with steel reinforcing rods.
The net covered the area from the surface down to a depth of one metre, he said.
“We need to look at plastics that have already sunk lower in the water or are already embedded in the sediment.
“But that will be for a future project. What’s important right now is to perfect and standardise the monitoring system.
“We’re still assessing the data we’ve collected so far but from our work on the Swartkops Bridge, we can say about 3,000 pieces of plastic are floating down the Swartkops into Algoa Bay every day, adding up to a million a year.
“And we can say that about 80% of the plastic debris found on the Swartkops banks is food packaging.”
Allen said the finding correlated with what he had seen in SA supermarkets, where very little fresh, frozen or dry produce was not covered in plastic.
The team would be taking up a number of the special nets, plus a bag full of tablets with Rimmel apps loaded, to a North African workshop, after which it was hoped that the method would be distributed to various African countries that had applied for it.
He said what he had seen in the Pyrenees and what he was seeing in Bay rivers confirmed the catastrophe he had witnessed unfolding years ago when he sailed around the world with his wife, fellow scientist Dr Deonie Allen.
“We saw plastic everywhere, even on the remotest Pacific islands. But quantifying and modelling the problem is preparation for the drastic action we’re going to need to take.”..