Local Microplastics Project Secures Funding Full Interview
Publish Date: Monday, 21 June 2021
Local Microplastics Project Secures Funding Full Interview
#Environmental Management #Microplastics #Staff Research

Local Microplastics Project Secures Funding


An environmental research project on microplastics in Invercargill waterways by Southern Institute of Technology’s School of Environmental Management has recently been successful in gaining funding from the Lotteries Commission – 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 at SIT, 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 to develop 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.


Dr Liang is Principal Investigator and has partner researchers from NorthTec (Dr Manue Martinez) and Otago Polytechnic (Martin Kean).


We spoke with Dr Liang recently to catch up with the latest news on the project’s progression. 


Since the project’s inclusion in the pilot programme in September 2020, can you bring us up to date on what’s been happening?


Since our last update, we have been busy establishing partnerships with Invercargill schools and community groups to run our citizen science programme Micro-Investigators with primary school students. Last October and November, we had the amazing opportunity of working with the Southland Community Nursery and Pūtaiao Tamariki (funded by Methodist Mission Southern), a programme that offers environmental field sessions to schools, giving students from all backgrounds the chance to explore science in a manner that is fun, interactive, environmental, and cultural.


As part of the programme’s Awa/River session, kids from Invercargill city schools collected microplastics samples from the Otepuni Stream, tried out different methods of measuring water quality, and learned about how awa fit in te ao Māori and their importance to tangata whenua. We are hoping to continue Micro-Investigators with the Southland Community Nursery and Pūtaiao Tamariki again later this year.


Since the beginning of the year, we have been working with Enviroschools, who have been instrumental in establishing partnerships with schools beyond the Invercargill city limits. Enviroschools have helped to coordinate Micro-Investigators field sessions around the Southland region, and we have worked with schools as far away as Gore. This 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. The samples collected by students in the city showed a much higher concentration of microplastics compared to the rural waterways. The more schools and students involved in the mahi, the clearer the picture of the state of microplastics in our local waterways. 


In collaboration with WasteNet Southland and Otago Polytechnic School of Design, we are in the process of setting up a website hub 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. An added bonus is the kids find it so cool that they have published data as citizen scientists, and they can use the website to help educate their friends and whānau.


There is “tons” of community engagement in the project. We are holding a Micro-Investigators Hui, taking place next month, which is funded by WasteNet Southland (Invercargill City Council) and SIT, and facilitated by Southland Enviroschools (Environment Southland) and Tūrama (a charitable organisation established to increase the awareness of te ao Māori - Maori world view).


Waste Free Wanda – described as “Aotearoa’s newest superhero” - will be MC of the event, and students who collected data for the Micro-Investigators project will be presenting their findings to city councillors and calling for action to reduce plastic pollution in our waterways  – we think that this message coming from our tamariki/children will be especially impactful.


The Micro-Investigators website will also be launched at the hui by the Otago Polytechnic web design team.


What will the funding allow you to achieve in progressing the project?


There are three key expected benefits and outcomes of the project, which cover the social, environmental, and educational realms:


Improving public participation and awareness: one of the key objectives of kaitiakitanga/guardianship is forming relationships between the land, environment, and people. Citizen science makes accessible opportunities for public engagement with environmental problems: this could increase public engagement in environmental decision-making and strengthen societal perceptions of the problems of plastic pollution, which in turn, could drive communities to act in a more sustainable way.


Environmental benefits: the funding will allow us to continue to deliver field sessions to schools all around the region, and to start to fill those geographical gaps in the data. Part of the funding will also go towards assembling sampling kits that can be left at different schools around the region. The ultimate goal is for the Micro-Investigators programme to be self-sustaining, since a good citizen science project is run by citizens too. These sampling kits are the first step in achieving this and will allow the schools to collect microplastics data on their own.


Social and cultural benefits: the funding allows us to continue to provide field sessions to students that otherwise would not be able to participate due to limited school funding. While some of the schools we visited were fortunate to have regular outdoor classroom sessions, this may not be the case for all schools, and we believe that all tamariki should have access to environmental field sessions and be able to explore science outdoors. 


What level of involvement is there from Environmental Management students currently?


The microplastics chemistry analysis is now a part of our teaching for the EM Environmental Science and Chemistry class (Bachelor students) and will continue to be part of the Trades Academy Environmental Studies class (high school students). Student kaimahi/workers from the Bachelor of EM help out at the field sessions and part of the lottery funding is for these students to be paid to run these sessions.


Can you see further possibilities of student collaboration within SIT? e.g., communication, marketing, fashion?


It would be a great opportunity for Marketing and Communications students to be involved to help maintain and upkeep the social media accounts, and to help spread awareness for our cause.


The fashion department at SIT have been coming up with initiatives around eco-fashion – I can see this being an interesting collaboration between our departments for the future! A lot of people don’t realise that they are most likely wearing plastic at all times, and that the fibres that come off of these clothes are microplastics.


Can you talk about the collaboration with Unitec which saw the funding application succeed?


I am so thankful to have been chosen to be part of the Te Pūkenga – NZIST Research Directors pilot programme. 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. They were absolutely critical in the grant application process and Brenda Massey, the Senior Grants Advisor, acted as a liaison between us and the funding agency and assisted in putting the application together.


In general, more partnership and collaboration between the Te Pūkenga institutes has been great for knowledge sharing and research. Our research manager, Dr Sally Bodkin-Allen organised the OPSITARA Research Symposium last year for Otago Polytechnic, SIT, and Ara Institute staff to share their research projects.


Martin Kean, who is a Senior Lecturer from Otago Polytechnic School of Design approached me about being involved in the Micro-Investigators website and the rest is history! Martin and the other lecturers at OP have done such a great job guiding the web design students and we are really happy with how the website is shaping up, and that we were able to expand our community and involve students from another institute.


Where do you see Micro-Investigators going from here? (is there still potential for national impact/roll out as initially hoped?)


Part of the funding supports collaborative research between SIT and Dr Manue Martinez from NorthTec, who researches macroplastic pollution in waterways, so we can explore the potential to expand the project into the North Island.


Although we have thus far worked with students, we are keen to involve all members of the community. We have recently been in contact with the Invercargill Rotary Club, who are interested in participating in microplastics sampling as well. Anyone who wants to help protect the environment and make a positive change in the community can participate in the mahi. Although it is still early in the discussion, it was mentioned that since the Rotary organisation is an international initiative, there could even be a possibility of seeking funding to expand the project even further beyond NZ.


The main thing we are trying to achieve is making the invisible visible, because it’s hard to care about what you can’t see and it’s hard to protect what you don’t care about. We think it’s so important that children and students from all levels of education and all walks of life are taking part because they will be able to learn about microplastics in our waterways and then go home and teach their whānau all about it and what they can do to reduce microplastics in our environment.


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 bringing your own KeepCup or using metal straws instead of disposable ones.


We can also encourage decision-makers to do the right things, like invest in good waste management (making sure our plastic rubbish ends up in the right place instead of in our environment) and recycling (promoting a circular economy where plastic is re-used over and over again).