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Funding boost for UC research on airborne microplastics

Could microplastics in the atmosphere play a role in climate change? UC atmospheric chemist Dr Laura Revell is leading an investigation into this important question, with the support of a $300,000 Fast-Start grant from the 2019 Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau.

In July 2019, a new report by the Royal Society Te Apārangi highlighted the issue of waste plastics in Aotearoa, noting that the amount of plastic produced each year has doubled over the last 20 years and is still growing rapidly. Less than 20 per cent of the waste plastic generated each year is recycled worldwide.

Much of this plastic waste piles up in landfills or the natural environment and, as it breaks down, produces microplastics that contaminate waterways, oceans and land. Some also becomes airborne, with microplastics having recently been discovered over several of the world’s megacities as well as in several remote environments throughout the northern hemisphere.

Dr Laura Revell, a lecturer in environmental physics, is leading a team looking into what role these airborne microplastics could be playing in climate change. The endeavour has attracted a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant, awarded to select world-class standard projects by emerging researchers. Joining Dr Revell on the collaborative project are associate investigators Associate Professor Sally Gaw (UC), Professor Eric Le Ru (Victoria University of Wellington) and Dr Andrea Stenke (ETH Zürich). The project’s mentor is UC chemistry researcher Dr Deborah Crittenden.

The discovery of atmospheric microplastics is still so recent that it is not known whether they significantly influence Earth’s climate or not.

“However, given that they are now being discovered in the atmosphere around the world and that their abundance is expected to increase in future, it is important to understand the role of microplastics in a changing climate,” Dr Revell says.

By combining observational work, laboratory investigations and modelling studies, the team aims to close the knowledge gap.

“Our results will determine whether airborne microplastics will moderate or intensify global warming.”

The Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau supports excellent New Zealand research. This project is one of six at UC to have been awarded a 2019 Fast-Start grant ($100,000 a year over three years). Another six standard grants of between $530,000 and $960,000 were also made, recognising UC as a world-class research-led teaching and learning university.

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