Two studies launched to monitor marine trash in Singapore

KELLY NG Today Online 22 Oct 17;

SINGAPORE — Efforts to track the growing problem of marine trash are gathering pace, with local researchers to conduct two studies that will help uncover the state of microplastic pollution here.

The International Coastal Cleanup, Singapore, is partnering the National Parks Board to monitor debris and microplastics at nine coastal sites such as East Coast Park, Coney Island and Sisters’ Island Marine Park.

The two-year study will involve monthly sampling of larger microplastic particles, measuring between 1mm and 5mm, with the help of the community. It aims to uncover seasonal trends of marine pollution through a more representative database.

Currently, data on marine waste here is only tabulated during the annual cleanup event held in conjunction with the International Coastal Cleanup in September. Items picked up from other coastal clean-up events held during the rest of the year are not monitored.

According to figures from the last five years, foam pieces, plastic beverage bottles and cigarette butts are the top three items found.

Last year, the 10 most-collected items of marine trash all contained some form of plastic. Various animals, such as horseshoe crabs and seahorses, were also found entangled in fishing nets, according to last year’s data.

While existing data offers a snapshot of the marine waste situation in Singapore, the upcoming study will provide “higher resolution data” that can help stakeholders trace the source of waste, said Mr N Sivasothi, who leads the cleanup effort in Singapore.

Microplastics, which generally range from 10 nanometres to 5mm in size, have generated growing concern among scientists due to their sheer pervasiveness and effects that are not yet fully known. The Guardian reported in September that researchers found 83 per cent of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations contaminated with plastic fibres.

Microplastics may originate from weathered remnants of larger plastic waste and other products — such as microbeads in cosmetic products, microfibers from synthetic fabrics during the laundry process and rubber debris from vehicle tyres.

In a separate study, Singapore has joined forces with nine other countries in the Western Pacific to develop a standard protocol for monitoring plastic particles that have accumulated on stretches of beaches.

The result of a workshop on marine microplastics organised by the UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Sub-Commission for the Western Pacific in September, the initiative will include detailed procedures for handling and categorising the plastic particles picked up, the tools to use, and sampling sites in each partner country.

The sampling sites in Singapore include the beaches at Changi and East Coast, Pulau Semakau, Pulau Hantu and Lazarus Island.

The other countries involved are Bangladesh, South Korea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The latter five countries are the source of 55 to 60 per cent of plastic polluting the oceans, according to a recent study by advocacy group, the Ocean Conservancy.

Among the participating countries, only China and South Korea have existing laws to combat plastic pollution. China bans marine dumping while South Korea bans the use of microbeads in cosmetics. They are also the only two countries that have published data on plastic waste.

The 10 countries will reconvene next September to report the status of microplastic pollution and discuss ways to enhance monitoring efforts, such as by expanding the scope of sampling to include surface waters and plastics consumed by animals.

National University of Singapore Chemistry professor Dr Suresh Valiyaveettil, who specialises in plastics research, said a concerted effort to monitor marine trash will help to improve design solutions and regulations to minimise local sources of such waste.

“It would be nice to introduce plastic-free days in a week throughout Singapore, provide alternate paper products or (encourage consumers to) carry (their) own containers…Like the European Union, we could set up machines in supermarkets (for consumers to) return the empty cans and bottles,” said Dr Valiyaveettil, who spoke at a public workshop on plastic pollution last Thursday (Oct 19).

Dr Serena Teo, deputy director of research at the Tropical Marine Science Institute said beyond monitoring, the Republic should do more to develop “sustainable solutions to replace and reduce use of plastic and other poorly degradable materials”.

“Monitoring and clean-up is all fine and good, but the time has come to take a big step further as we produce plastic faster than we can ever hope to clear up. So on the technology and industry end, we seriously need to ramp up efforts,” she said. “Otherwise, the efforts of the many (members of the) public who are trying to clean up is futile… We have to also ask ourselves what useful things can we do with all the plastic waste after it is collected.”

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