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Local Microplastics Project Secures Lottery Funding

An environmental research project on microplastics in Southland waterways by Southern Institute of Technology’s School of Environmental Management, has recently been successful in gaining funding from the Lottery Environment and Heritage Committee – a first for SIT – and reinforces the ongoing development of the project locally, as well as further afield.

The project, Micro-Investigators: monitoring of waterway microplastic pollution in Southland, New Zealand through citizen science, led by Dr Christine Liang, Programme Manager for the School of Environmental Management, first gained national attention when it was selected by NZIST Research Directors in 2020 to be included as part of a pilot programme across Te Pūkenga – New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology organisations, to receive concentrated support in developing grant applications for gaining external funding.

The development of the applications was supported by Unitec’s Research and Enterprise Office, with the successful application resulting in $21,657 of Lottery Environment and Heritage funding.

“The Unitec Research and Enterprise Office was such a huge help in so many ways, like connecting me with like-minded researchers from Te Pūkenga institutes to facilitate knowledge sharing and helping me to develop the project to reach new levels”, said Dr Liang.

Dr Liang is Principal Investigator and has partner researchers from NorthTec (Dr Manue Martinez) and Otago Polytechnic (Martin Kean). She said there are three key expected benefits and outcomes of the project, which cover the social, environmental, and educational realms:

Improving public participation and awareness: potential outcomes include - increasing public engagement in environmental decision-making and strengthening societal understanding of plastic pollution, which in turn, could foster more sustainable living.

Environmental benefits: the funding will allow the continuation of the delivery of field sessions to schools all around the region. Part of the funding will also go towards assembling sampling kits which will be left at different schools around the region.

Social and cultural benefits: the funding allows the continuation of providing field sessions to students that otherwise would not be able to participate due to limited school funding.

Dr Liang said the ultimate goal is for the Micro-Investigators programme to be self-sustaining, as this is the hallmark of a good citizen science project.

“The sampling kits are the first step in achieving this and will allow the schools to collect microplastics data on their own”.

As part of the funding supports collaborative research between SIT and Dr Martinez at NorthTec, who researches macroplastic pollution in waterways, Dr Liang said they will be able to investigate the potential to expand the project into the North Island.

Since being announced as a project for concentrated support in September 2020, Dr Liang said there has been “tons” of community engagement in the project locally.

“We have been busy establishing partnerships with Invercargill schools and community groups to run our citizen science programme Micro-Investigators with primary school students”.

They’ve worked with Southland Community Nursery and Pūtaiao Tamariki (Oct-Nov 2020) and are collaborating with Environment Southland’s Enviroschools facilitators, who have been instrumental in establishing partnerships with schools beyond Invercargill city limits, helping to coordinate Micro-Investigators field sessions around the Southland region.

“The collaboration is great for the data as well because now we can start to fill in the geographical gaps around the region, as well as compare the microplastics concentrations from some of our rural streams compared to our city streams”, said Dr Liang.

“The more schools and students involved in the mahi, the clearer the picture of the state of microplastics in our local waterways”, she added.

Although all the work thus far has been with students, Dr Liang said they are keen to engage all members of the community, and anyone who wants to help protect the environment can make a positive impact by getting involved. She spoke of a recent connection with Invercargill Rotary Club, who are interested in participating in microplastics sampling as well.

“Although it is still early days in the discussion, it was mentioned that since the Rotary organisation is an international initiative, there could be a possibility of seeking funding to expand the project even further, beyond NZ”.

Dr Liang says they are also in the process of setting up a website hub in collaboration with WasteNet Southland and Otago Polytechnic School of Design, for schools and citizen scientists to view their microplastics data, allowing the comparison of results across rivers and monitoring the state of microplastics long-term.

A Micro-Investigators Hui will be held next month in Invercargill, which is funded by WasteNet Southland (Invercargill City Council) and SIT, facilitated by Environment Southland’s Enviroschools and Tūrama charitable trust, with award-winning musician Waste Free Wanda as MC.

Students who have collected data for the Micro-Investigators project will be presenting their findings to city councillors and calling for action to reduce plastic pollution in southern waterways. The Micro-Investigators website will also be launched at the hui.

Dr Liang emphasised it was the community’s capacity to make achievable small changes, which would have positive effects. “The best ways to reduce microplastics are to stop it at the source. Moving away from a single-use plastic lifestyle is paramount: we can make simple swaps as an individual, like having a reusable coffee cup, or metal straws instead of using disposable ones”.

“We can also encourage decision-makers to do things like investing in good waste management and recycling, promoting a circular economy where plastic is re-used over and over again”, she added.

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