16 July 2019

Students from University of Copenhagen study plastic pollution in Vietnam’s plastic “hotspot”

This news is translated and redirected by SCIENCE from the Department of Geosciences and
Natural Resource Management.

A team of 18 students from University of Copenhagen has been on a two-week study trip to Vietnam, where they studied plastic pollution at Nha Phu Bay outside of the city Nha Trang. Vietnam was the chosen destination because the country is among the countries dumping the most plastic into the seas in the world.

Plastic at Nha Phu Bay by the city Nha Trang in Vietnam. Photo: University of Copenhagen.

Research on plastic pollution is moving forward fast but still, there is only little knowledge about how plastic affects various biogeochemical cycles in the environment. For that reason, students, Ph.D. students and Postdocs from University of Copenhagen went to Nha Phu Bay outside of Nha Trang, which is the plastic “hotspot” in Vietnam.

Together with researchers and students from a number of Vietnamese research institutions, they have studied the plastic pollution in various environments. During the course of two weeks, they have gained knowledge about the sources of the plastic, how it is transported, buried and decomposed.

Gyde Krüger, who is a student of (natur)geografi says; ”I like that the study is so complex and there are so many different opportunities for combining it with other research fields, which we also did on this study trip. My specialization is in geoinformatics but here I got the opportunity to study geomicrobiology – a field I probably never would have encountered otherwise”

Lea Flindt, who has a bachelor degree in Geography and now studies the Climate Change master, adds; ”The thing which surprised me the most during the trip to Vietnam is the complexity within the problem of plastic pollution as there are so many different factors affecting the consumption, collection and management of plastic”.

The students came from University of Copenhagen’s studies; geology, Climate Change and geography and there is rich opportunity for participating in interdisciplinary research cooperation’s on various current subjects.

”The most interesting thing for me was to try out many different and new methods in a very different environment compared to what we have at home. I was surprised, how much plastic actually ends up in the ocean – even though I actually already new before we left it was very chocking to actually see”, Gyda Krüger says.

Lea Flindt adds; ”The most interesting about this trip was to plan and collect my own data within 10 days. It was really interesting and intense and I think I never before have learned so much in such a short time”.

Together with researchers and students from a number of different Vietnamese research institutions they have examined what makes Nha Phu Bay a ”hotspot and how it affects the plastic arriving at the mouth of the river and into the bay.

Among other things, they have examined the amount and types of plastic garbage in the bay and interviewed public and private actors in order to investigate the social factors contributing to the plastic pollution within the region.

Interviews with the locals about their behavior
The group of (culture) geographers looked into the socio-economic background in relation to the plastic pollution in Vietnam. The students carried out interviews with 60 households on their waste behavior and interviewed representatives from both formal and informal plastic management systems in Nha Trang.

Lea Flindt says; ”We interviewed people who earned a living from collecting specific types of trash such as cans and plastic bottles. We talked to employees in the so-called “junk stores”, which are in charge of purchase and resale of various types of trash, which are profitable and recyclable. Moreover, we conducted a survey in a smaller area north of the city surrounded by the river Cai River. Here we also investigated the everyday practices within the households focusing on management of trash and sorting of trash. These data gave us the opportunity to shed light on how human practices contribute to the plastic pollution in the rivers and in the sea in Nha Trang”.

The geology-students investigated the biogeochemical decomposing of plastic in the rivers and in the bay. They collected plastic, water, mud and sand from the shore of the two rivers and from boat trips to Nha Phu Bay. These data are to be compared to data from experiments conducted in Denmark.

The students from (nature) geography have investigated the decomposing of plastic, which they collected at the beach and in the bay. The purpose with this is to understand how the plastic is transported to the shoreline and out into the ocean.

”We have collected water samples and plastic to examine the nutrients, microorganisms and biofilm. When we arrived home, we have followed the development within the plastic samples for 6 weeks looking into the development of methane and thereby the decomposing of plastic”, Gyde Krüger explains.

Furthermore, two Postdocs and one Ph.D. student participated. They were to identify microbial communities growing on the plastic and used among other tools Raman spectoskropi, which is a laser analysis for identifying various types of plastic. They collected water and sediment from the beach and the mouth of the river to estimate the level of nutrients such as phosphate, nitrate, nitrite and ammonium and sulphide, methane and dissolved inorganic carbon. These parameters will help them understand the various types of microorganisms, which has developed on the plastic.

The students were all surprised by the amount of plastic pollution in Asia.

”I was surprised how much plastic we found and how much is used in daily life. At one point, we ordered an ice coffee to-go and got the coffee in a plastic cup with a plastic litter and a straw in a small plastic to-go bag”, Kelsey Rogers, Postdoc in geology says.

Joan Antoni Carreres Calabuig, who is a Ph.D.-student, adds;
After the study trip, I travelled around in the Northern part of Vietnam and I was very surprised to see that even in areas such as Sa Pa, an area with rice fields situated high up in the mountains, I saw lots of plastic in the rivers and in the forests”.

Continued collaboration with Vietnam
The collaboration between University of Copenhagen and the researchers in Vietnam will continue and hopefully be expanded through the already existing research collaboration and the interest from both Danish and Vietnamese parties.

Read the original article in Danish here.

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