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Students tackling global plastic pollution at river basin level

The scourge of plastic pollution on the planet’s ecosystems and biota is well-recognised, with the ubiquity of micro- and nanoplastics in the environment becomingly increasingly apparent.

In 2018, microplastics have been identified at concerning levels in environments previously considered near-pristine, such as the benthic sediments offshore of the Great Australian Bight and both the Arctic and Antarctic. Additionally, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is expanding and the global production of plastics is higher than ever before.

The vast majority of this ocean plastic originates from land-based sources, with rivers serving as the main transport pathways for plastic pollution from land to ocean.

The UNSW Global Water Institute (GWI) is coordinating a multi-country effort with partner universities in Indonesia, India, Fiji and China to investigate waterways that serve as major arteries of eventual ocean microplastics.

Supported by the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Mobility Program, 15 UNSW students will travel to the four countries in early 2019 to undertake a multidisciplinary research investigation. The study will monitor macro- and microplastics and compare the levels of plastic pollution in highly-impacted waterways with societal behaviour and waste governance systems.

Engineering solutions to reduce mismanaged plastic waste from entering the environment and remove plastic from waterways will then be considered and proposed. Students will consolidate their findings in-country by completing a project on microplastics through the new Humanitarian Engineering Project course offered in the UNSW Faculty of Engineering, which allows final-year engineering students to work in teams on an applied research problem in humanitarian engineering with an academic mentor.

GWI sees the plastic pollution challenge as a truly interdisciplinary one and believes that tackling global plastic pollution – including the presence of microplastics in both the environment and our food chain – requires societal changes, engineering solutions and effective environmental management.

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