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Earth Today | UWI research sheds light on microplastics problem in Jamaica

Published:Thursday | February 28, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Plastics and microplastics are a signifcant source of pollution for the Caribbean.

NEW RESEARCH from The University of the West Indies has provided insight into Jamaica’s problem with microplastics which, globally, represent a significant environment risk.

Microplastics – those small plastic fragments typically less than five millimetres that are derived from the breakdown of macroplastics, including plastic bottles – contribute greatly to marine pollution worldwide.

Jamaica, it would appear, is no different, as revealed by the UWI study, titled Characterisation of Microplastics in the Surface Waters of Kingston Harbour and undertaken by Deanna Rose of the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences, and Professor Mona Webber of the Centre for Marine Sciences.

The study, which began in 2017, investigated quantities and types of microplastic debris in the Kingston Harbour with a focus on the mangrove areas, which receive much of the macroplastics debris brought into the harbour.

“Overall, the results confirmed surface water microplastic contamination at all four stations sampled on the five days of this study period. Twenty-four per cent of the microplastics sampled were estimated to be between 0.335mm and 1mm. However, majority of microplastics were classified between 1mm and 2.5mm (47 per cent), while others were between 2.5mm and 5mm (22 per cent) and fewer having a dimension greater than 5mm (seven per cent),” note the results of the study.

On the types of microplastics found, the study found four main types – fragments, fibre, foam, and microbead. Fragments accounted for 86.08 per cent, with fibres second in abundance (12.68 per cent), followed by foam (0.92 per cent) and beads (0.31 per cent).

Research findings

In addition to the findings, the researchers note that the importance of the study also rests with it being a first.

“While microplastics have been documented in marine environments worldwide, their concentrations and implications have never been assessed in Kingston Harbour or anywhere else in Jamaica,” Rose and Webber said in their report, published in the journal, Science of the Total Environment.

“These findings indicate the presence of measureable quantities of microplastics in the surface waters of the Kingston Harbour. Though several studies have been published on plastic and microplastic debris in relation to the Caribbean and, by extension, small island developing states, limited knowledge exists for surface water microplastics concentrations in surface waters of these regions,” they added, noting that the findings also serve to establish a crucial baseline of the statistics of microplastic pollution in the harbour.

The areas of the Kingston Harbour under study were also significant. They included stations within the harbour adjacent to Gallow’s Point, Refuge Cay and Buccaneer Beach.

“These areas are also important nursing grounds for commercially important fish and shellfish that are extracted from the harbour and south coast shelf in Jamaica,” the researchers said.

The harbour itself is the most contaminated bay, through its proximity to the country’s capital city and the natural physiography, which makes it almost completed enclosed, with a relatively small opening at its western end.

The researchers, meanwhile, recommend additional research on the subject, with a view “to assessing microplastic distribution throughout the water column”.

In this, the researchers mirror the call of Chris Corbin, programme officer for assessment and management of environmental pollution/communication education, training and awareness with the UN Environment/Caribbean Environment Programme.

“Microplastics occur from various sources, so improving solid waste management and banning of single-use plastic will reduce that input to the environment,” he told The Gleaner earlier this month, referencing Jamaica’s ban on plastic packaging containers, including single-use plastic bags.

“However, we do need more research to try to identify our main sources of microplastics and fibres, as wear and tear on tyres and laundry water from synthetic clothes are also sources, as is domestic wastewater. Current wastewater treatment systems do not remove microplastics. Microplastics are also being found in terrestrial environment,” Corbin added.