Stirling expert part of international team combatting marine plastic pollution

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Discarded plastic waste floating in the ocean

A University of Stirling expert will lead a project researching the sources, impacts, and degradation of microplastics, as part of an international collaboration to combat marine plastic pollution in Southeast Asia.

Dr Sabine Matallana-Surget, of Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, and Professor Federico Lauro, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, will lead on one of four projects that form part of a £6 million partnership between environment agencies in the UK and Singapore. The projects, part of the Understanding the Impact of Plastic Pollution on Marine Ecosystems in South East Asia - South East Asia Plastics (SEAP) - Programme, will take place over three years, beginning in November 2020.

They will investigate how plastic enters and behaves in the environment, its effect on marine life, and suitable approaches to reducing environmental damage.

The Stirling project team includes participants from the UK, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, partners in Belgium and USA, and government bodies in Singapore, including the National Centre for Food Science.

Dr Matallana-Surget has received funding of £710,578 from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to investigate how different types of plastic pollution are broken down and how this breakdown affects toxicity and impacts on marine life in coastal environments in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Dr Sabine Matallana-Surget of the Faculty of Natural Sciences

Dr Sabine Matallana- Surget, of the Faculty of Natural Sciences

Dr Matallana-Surget said: “The Southeast Asian region is facing one of the most important marine plastic pollution crises on our planet, threatening the biodiversity of marine ecosystems, coastal tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, which are vital for the economic growth of the region. Plastics debris are persistent in the marine environment and are dominated by the smaller abundant plastic particles, defined as microplastics, that are of increasing concern.

“Our research will assess the sources and impacts of plastic pollution at both the molecular and organismal level – from microorganisms to bivalves and fish – and we will seek to identify new enzymes involved in the degradation of high molecular weight plastic polymers – such as polystyrene and polypropylene – which represent more than 80 percent of annual plastic production. We will provide new insights into the biological and photochemical degradability of different microplastics which will support new policies and innovations, which could include banning the most harmful polymers, in the global effort to tackle plastic pollution.”

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, NERC Executive Chair, said: “Plastic pollution is a growing threat to marine environments across the globe. These innovative projects will not only help us understand the impact plastic has on marine ecosystems in Southeast Asia but they could also find solutions to this challenge.

“These awards provide further evidence of NERC’s commitment to funding excellent, world-leading research in environmental sciences both in the UK and internationally. Our investment in international development research aims to positively impact the lives of millions of people across the world and supports global efforts to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”

The research collaborations represent a £6 million investment by NERC and Singapore’s National Research Foundation, with UK Government funding supported by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The aim of the SEAP Programme is to support collaborations between researchers in the UK, Singapore and the wider Southeast Asia region to increase understanding of the impacts and risks of plastics in marine ecosystems (including mangroves, coral reefs and beaches) and the essential services these ecosystems provide, in order to support the development of mitigation measures.