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Four fellows trawl for solutions to marine health problems

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Four researchers from across the Commonwealth have come to Brunel University London to tackle problems on the topics of plastic pollution and marine health, thanks to fellowships from the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

The ACU has awarded Blue Charter fellowships to 35 academics this year to support world-class research and innovation in marine plastics and reducing marine pollution – which often means tackling plastic pollution on land before it reaches the oceans.

“Brunel’s researchers have a strong track record in exposing the impact of plastic and other pollutants on marine ecosystems, and on working in an interdisciplinary manner to come up with solutions to problems,” said Prof Geoff Rodgers, Brunel’s Vice-Provost for Research.

“From providing scientific advice to the award-winning documentary film A Plastic Ocean to helping children understand the perils of plastic pollution, we bring a breadth of expertise to meet this global challenge. Attracting an impressive four of this year’s 35 fellows to Brunel is testament to this.”

Each fellow is benefiting from Brunel’s academic staff and equipment during their 2- to 3-month-long placement here before taking their project back to their main university.

Dr Emeka Dumbili: Raising awareness of plastic pollution in Nigeria 

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(Image: CC by flickr/blyth)

Much of Nigeria's large and growing population lacks access to drinking water of a good enough quality – which is why sachets of 'pure water' have become hugely popular since being pioneered in 1990. Convenient and widely available, each soft plastic sachet provides a bottle's worth of water at a fraction of the cost, and essential hydration in the hot and humid climate. 

But with more than 70% of Nigeria's 180 million people drinking at least one a day, discarded sachets contribute to a wider waste problem in a country that ranks as the ninth biggest ocean polluter on the planet.  

“Most Nigerians are not aware of the danger pollution poses,” says Dr Emeka Dumbili, whose fellowship brings him to Brunel from Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria's south east. “There's not enough recycling infrastructure, and most households leave their waste in the street gutter outside their house, where heavy rain washes it towards the ocean.” 

At Brunel, Dr Dumbili will develop a pilot study aimed at raising awareness of plastic pollution among a group of Nigerians: students back at Nnamdi Azikiwe. The study will harness the country's most popular means of mass communication, including radio and social media, with the aim of improving student attitudes towards waste management.  

“Students at Nnamdi Azikiwe come from different tribes, different communities, from all parts of Nigeria,” explained Dr Dumbili. “If they can take good behaviour back to where they came from, I’m sure that society will begin to understand that this is a problem, and that we need to collectively solve it.”

Supervised by Dr Lesley Henderson

Prof Rupika Rajakaruna: Educating Sri Lankans to save the sea turtle

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(Image: CC by flickr/denishc)

In recent years, Sri Lanka has boomed with tourists attracted by an idyllic balance of white-sand beaches, beautiful cultural heritage and unspoilt national parks. But whilst their presence has brought much-needed funds into Sri Lanka’s burgeoning economy, it’s also put significant strain on the island nation’s famous wildlife – including one of its best-loved residents, the sea turtle.

Increasing consumption by tourists and locals means that levels of plastic pollution in the ocean are rising. If a turtle eats just one piece of plastic, its chance of dying goes up by 22% – which increases further if it ingests more.

“In Sri Lanka we have these turtle hatcheries,” said Prof Rupika Rajakaruna, a Professor of Applied Zoology who joined the ACU fellowship programme from the University of Peradeniya. “They’re generally illegal, privately owned, profit-orientated places that buy turtle eggs from local poachers, and then incubate them inside the hatchery.

“When the hatchlings come out, they keep them in tanks and show them to tourists – the tourists even get to release into the wild sometimes, for an additional charge.”

With thousands of livelihoods reliant on the hatcheries, simply closing them down isn’t a feasible option, said Prof Rajakaruna. However, she hopes that working with Brunel’s sociologists will help her to explore a different solution, and turn them into information hubs that help shape public perception.

“What we need to do is to improve the hatcheries’ practices – give them proper guidelines, educate the owners, the keepers, the managers,” Prof Rajakaruna explained.

“Through them, we can get the message to the public that it’s important to conserve the sea turtle and reduce plastic pollution. The message can be passed on to schoolchildren visiting the hatcheries, including through programmes involving students from the University of Peradeniya – and this message will also benefit the locals, and the tourists visiting from outside Sri Lanka.”

Supervised by Dr Lesley Henderson

Dr Sheng Yang: Reducing waste in 3D printing

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(Image: CC by flickr/3dbenchy)

Additive manufacturing – better known as 3D printing – has the potential to revolutionise the way we make products. But whilst waste from traditional industry is well understood and studied, far less is known about what we should do with the leftovers of industry’s likely next epoch.

“There are a few unknowns,” said Dr Sheng Yang, who has joined the fellowship from Montreal’s McGill University.

“The first is, what is the exact amount of waste? Either at Brunel, or in the UK, no one has the data yet. Secondly, several materials that have been developed specifically for additive manufacturing are different from the plastics we’re used to.

“So, the challenge we’re facing is – what do we do if these plastics get into the existing recycling system? It may cause contamination with other plastics, and mean the whole lot is wasted.”

During his two months with Brunel, Dr Yang aims to complete a number of tasks, including reviewing the literature that’s already been written on the subject, and developing a set of guidelines for reducing the amount of waste in the additive manufacturing process.

“Half a million desktop 3D printers were sold last year, most of which use single-use plastics,” said Dr Yang, whose background is in design and sustainability.

“I want to study the entire lifecycle, but the most important part is actually the design stage. I want to develop some preventative strategies to help reduce the amount of plastic used. Can they be designed to be recycled more easily? Or more durable, so that they can be used more often?”

Supervised by Prof David Harrison

Dr Gideon Bamigboye: Making durable and affordable tiles from waste plastic

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Dr Gideon Bamigboye and colleagues at Covenant University, on the outskirts of Lagos, have come up with an innovative way of using discarded drinks bottles: making tiles out of the waste plastic.

But with ceramic tiles readily available across Nigeria, Dr Bamigboye’s recycled PET tiles – made from polyethylene terephthalate, the common plastic – will only take off as an idea if they’re both cheaper and more durable than the competition.

“If the market for the tiles is taken up, it will reduce the waste in the environment, both from the oceans and landfill, and will create jobs and opportunities,” he said. “It will also reduce the importation of tiles – we could be exporting these innovative tiles to other countries.”

With so much at stake, getting the tiles hard-wearing and affordable is a must, and there’s a lot of technical work to be carried out. This means finding the right level of additives that, through a specific curing process, turn flexible bottle plastic into a quality material that can withstand heavy foot traffic, water and spills.

“At Brunel’s Wolfson Centre for Materials Processing, you have a lot of unique materials processing and testing equipment,” Dr Bamigboye enthuses, “and expert staff available to provide guidance.” It’s this kit he uses to simulate the challenging conditions the tiles could be subjected to on floors, walls and roofs – key to the project’s success. He’ll then take his findings back to Covenant and make the next step towards commercialising this idea, thus turning waste into wealth for the country.

“These tiles would create an industry with various chains and networks of job spaces to be filled by my fellow Nigerians, with the raw material locally available,” he added.

Supervised by Prof Karnik Tarverdi

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn and Tim Pilgrim, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 266867
press-office@brunel.ac.uk