Rivers are major pathways for plastic waste on land to reach the oceans.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal teamed up with The Ocean Cleanup — a Dutch non-profit organisation developing advanced technologies to rid the oceans of plastic — to embark on a three-year research project to map plastic pollution hotspots and monitor plastic fluxes in the Umgeni River catchment, as well as on the coastline of the Indian Ocean around Durban.
According to Professor Cristina Trois of the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI), she and her team of researchers will try to find answers to questions like: when and how plastics spill into the Umgeni? How fast and how far will they be flushed downstream? How much and when will the plastics reach the river mouth and the Indian Ocean and what happens after these drink bottles, shopping bags and lunch-boxes reach the ocean?
She said although there are many benefits brought by plastics, they also pose a vast environmental problem.
“Of the total of over 8 billion tons of plastics ever produced to date, a staggering 80% have already ended up in landfills or the environment. Once lost, plastics will fragment into smaller pieces — microplastics — which they pose a threat to ingesting organisms,” said Trois, adding that a brand-new global modelling study indicates that 0,8 to 2,7 million tons of plastics are transported towards the oceans yearly, with small urban rivers among the main polluters.
“According to this study, five major streams in the Durban area may carry as much as 1 340 tons alone towards the Indian Ocean,” said Trois.
Doctor Thomas Mani, from The Ocean Cleanup, said: “The Ocean Cleanup pursues a strong research emphasis in line with its mission to rid the world’s oceans of plastic by deploying mechanical clean-up devices in the offshore ocean as well as in rivers.”
Mani added that with the use of satellite imagery, aeroplanes and drones, river cameras, floating GPS trackers, underwater sampling and beach litter characterisation, this research partnership is specifically seeking to find new insight into the seasonal dynamics of plastic waste transport through the Umgeni River system and provide a replicable model for cities in the West Indian Ocean (WIO) region.