New research will combat marine plastic pollution in South East Asia

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth are to share in £6m funding to help to reduce the impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems in South East Asia.

The project is one of four international research collaborations supported by investment from the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF), with UK Government funding supported by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The project is part of the Understanding the Impact of Plastic Pollution on Marine Ecosystems in South East Asia (South East Asia Plastics (SEAP)) Programme and will take place over three years, beginning in November 2020.

By drawing on Portsmouth’s expertise and strengths in the Centre for Blue Governance, Centre for Enzyme Innovation and our Revolution Plastics initiative, we can come up with possible solutions for reducing the impact of plastics in the marine environment, including the potential use of enzymes that exist in biofilms for bioengineered recycling.

The interdisciplinary project team involves world-leading researchers, policy groups and community leaders across eight different organisations in the UK, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam to address an increasingly global threat identified as a priority for the countries in the region.

The aim of SEAP is to increase our 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.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth will lead a project with Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) to investigate the role of microorganisms in plastic pollution breakdown and explore how they may help provide a solution to the pollution problem.

The insights gleaned from these projects will support policymakers and managers of marine ecosystems in South East Asia in developing interventions, as well as mitigation and adaptation measures, to reduce the environmental damage from marine plastics.

Professor Simon Cragg, the project lead for the University of Portsmouth, said: “Our research will look at how microorganisms contribute to plastic breakdown and how this then determines the fate of plastic waste in the marine environment. We will measure the impacts of ‘plastispheres’ (combination of plastic and the microorganisms that live on it) on marine environments and characterise the hazard posed to ecosystems.

“By drawing on Portsmouth’s expertise and strengths in the Centre for Blue Governance, Centre for Enzyme Innovation and our Revolution Plastics initiative, we can then come up with possible solutions for reducing the impact of plastics in the marine environment, including the potential use of enzymes that exist in biofilms for bioengineered recycling.”

NERC Executive Chair, Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, 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 South East 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.”

NRF Chief Executive Officer, Professor Low Teck Seng, said: “Plastic pollution poses severe consequences to ocean health and biodiversity, and is an acute problem in the ASEAN region today. The National Research Foundation Singapore is pleased to partner with NERC to support the SEAP Programme. The insights gleaned from these projects will support policymakers and managers of marine ecosystems in South East Asia in developing interventions, as well as mitigation and adaptation measures, to reduce the environmental damage from marine plastics. These programme outcomes will contribute to the region’s efforts in protecting and preserving our marine biodiversity.”

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