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You Can Find a Plastic Bottle from the Czech Republic in Alaska

You Can Find a Plastic Bottle from the Czech Republic in Alaska
Do you want to help the planet? Follow the 3Rs, Reduce – Reuse – Recycle.

We can find plastics all around us, but we cannot see microplastics – particles that are often invisible to the naked eye. We can find them in the water we drink, in the air, and the soil. Their effect on the human body is one of the many unanswered questions, which is why they are receiving increasing attention in science. For aquatic animals, these micro-particles pose a serious threat. We know that for sure.

The issue of microplastics in the aquatic environment, but also in the human body, has been the focus of Ing. Jan Halfar, who graduated in Technology and Water Management at the Faculty of Mining and Geology of VSB-TUO, Department of Environmental Engineering, which deals with research and education in these selected environmental fields.

After graduation, he wants to pursue a career in microparticles and microplastics because it is important to him to fight plastic pollution. That is why he went to the USA this June for his study abroad internship.

How did you come to study abroad in the USA? For many students at Czech universities, studying abroad, even if it is as part of a study stay, is a dream come true.

The period from the first moment I started thinking about an internship until I left lasted more than a year. I originally planned to go on a study trip abroad in 2021. Unfortunately, it did not happen for obvious reasons. At the time of the pandemic, universities and organisations did not want to plan for the arrival of any international students. Since it was impossible to predict the further development of the situation in 2022, it was not easy to arrange internships even for this year. I was very fortunate as I was in contact with the director of the North Carolina-based organisation Plastic Ocean Project, Bonnie Monteleone. From the very first moment, this visionary was thrilled with my idea to come to the United States and work with them. After completing an online interview, during which we defined what each of us does and where our work overlaps, we began planning my study trip. By the beginning of 2022, I had already decided to spend June in North Carolina. In addition, just before my departure, I was offered the opportunity to participate in a week-long research cruise to Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Of course, I enthusiastically accepted. After hearing this news, I was sure that while the pandemic had closed many opportunities, it, on the other hand, subsequently had opened up even more of them. Although planning a study trip to the US is far more challenging than travelling in Europe, I recommend this experience to all students and those interested in a study trip abroad.

What did your study trip to the United States give you? How is their teaching style different from ours?

First, I have gained many new colleagues and friends and a lot of important experience. The research cruise in Alaska was also largely an epiphany because, paradoxically, we found plastic waste from all over the world on the beaches of Katmai National Park and Preserve, where no humans live. So yes, it is true that a lost plastic bottle from the Czech Republic can be found thousands of miles away on the Alaskan coast. We also worked with American colleagues on local surface water samples to determine microplastics. We exchanged experiences, information, and knowledge on this issue throughout our stay. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to participate in theoretical teaching because after arriving from Alaska, I was only devoted to research in the laboratories.

How did the week-long research expedition to Katmai National Park and Reserve go? Did you walk the beaches and collect plastic, or do I imagine it wrong?

After arriving on the Alaskan island of Kodiak, we boarded a boat with the team. We travelled for about four hours to the research vessel Island C, which was already on an expedition then. The primary goal of the expedition, organised by the Ocean Plastic Recovery Project, was to remove as much plastic waste as possible from the Katmai National Park and Reserve shores. The crew for the following week’s voyage consisted of 12 volunteers from institutions and companies that deal with plastics and five crew members. Katmai National Park and Reserve is a unique place where many animals live naturally without human intervention. I was most impressed by the grizzly bear and the black bear. I encountered them at almost every turn. For this reason, we first had to attend a training session on human behaviour in the bears’ natural territory, which shed light on their behaviour and reactions to our presence. This training made the close presence of a bear a safe situation. I verified this the next day after the training when a grizzly bear, followed by a black bear, walked past us at close range. Everything went exactly as we had learned during our training, so I am alive and well. The day on the ship followed a pre-determined schedule, which we were informed about in the morning briefing. Basically, in the morning, we got on boats to go to the beach, where we collected the ubiquitous plastics, and then we moved on to have lunch and listen to specialist lectures by individual expedition members. In the afternoon, we headed back to the coast. Since it is light most of the day in Alaska, plans are not made by time but by the tide. It was necessary to ensure that we could get to the ship quickly, if needed, and in turn, get safely from the ship to land. The evening was followed by a social programme of lectures, discussions and entertainment in the form of watching whales, killer whales, dolphins, seals and much more.

Did you find a large amount of plastics in the national park?

The moment I stepped out of the boat for the first time, the coast looked relatively clean and free of litter. However, I only had to step to the foreshore to be shocked by the amount of plastic waste of all kinds, shapes, materials, and, most importantly, different places of origin. The amount we got on board in three and a half working days was over five tonnes of plastics alone.

During your internship, you took water samples from the ocean, which you then analysed for the presence of microplastics. What was the result of the analysis? Did you find the microplastics you mentioned in the samples? 

The exact results are not yet known because the samples could not be transported by air in luggage. Thus, they arrived less than a week before my departure, and the overall analysis is very time-consuming. I firmly believe that the exact results of the analysis will reach me soon.

Are microplastics a big problem? Where can they be found? Can we find them even in the water we drink every day?

Microplastics are a topic that needs a lot of attention. Not only because we do not yet have a precise methodology for their collection and determination but also because we cannot yet confirm or deny what happens to the particles in the human body. We assume that particles of a sufficient size will pass through the human body, and essentially nothing will happen. However, what happens if the particle is so tiny that it is able to enter the bloodstream? Large pieces of plastic degrade into smaller and smaller particles, where we already have problems determining particles in units of micrometres. For this reason, it is more than necessary for us to develop a standardised methodology for their determination and to continue research into their impact on the various components of the environment. Of course, these particles have already been confirmed in drinking water and food, air or soil. However, what we can do in the first instance is not to buy, if possible, water packaged in plastic. The reason is not that it will endanger our lives. Still, it will at least help to reduce the amount of plastic waste, which is astronomically high.

What can each person do to help the planet with microplastics?

As I mentioned, everyone can help by trying to reduce their consumption of plastic products. If that is not possible, we should use these products for as long as possible. Last but not least, we should take them to the places designated for their collection for recycling. Simply: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

You worked in the Plastic Ocean Project labs. What did that give you? Did you gain any experience that you will apply to your PhD studies at our University?

Cooperating with colleagues working on the same topic as me is very rewarding for both parties. All the while, we were exchanging knowledge and information regarding our work, trying to simplify and improve the processes of microplastics determination. We also debated the issue of the overuse of plastics, especially single-use plastics, which serve their purpose for a very short time and then become waste that cannot be recycled and end up in landfills at best and in the environment at worst.

In your studies, you are also dealing with microplastics in the Czech Republic. Have you got any results yet?

I have been working on the topic of microplastics for more than two years. We have managed to get the necessary equipment to determine these tiny plastic particles during this time. As I have already mentioned, determining these particles is very time-consuming. I am currently working on drinking water samples from the Moravian-Silesian, Olomouc and Zlín Regions, where the final stage of the determination is currently underway. In parallel to these samples, my colleagues and I are working on human samples, which is very interesting and beneficial research for the future.

How do microplastics affect us, and what prospects does the world have?

Microplastics have already been shown to affect aquatic organisms, but we cannot yet assess the effect on humans. What is certain is that the amount of plastic waste in the environment is increasing every second. This waste degrades due to many factors and breaks down into smaller pieces over time. Someone may argue that it is good that plastic breaks down and disappears from our forests, meadows, lakes, and rivers. However, the fact that we can no longer see plastic bottles finally brings a much bigger problem because from one bottle, we suddenly have thousands of particles invisible to the eye, breaking into thousands more particles. It is, therefore, very likely that, unless we as a humanity start to at least minimise the amount of new waste, we will start a chain that cannot be stopped. By 2050, it is predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. We need to act fast if we do not want to eat steak made of polypropylene.

Text and photo: Bc. Zuzana Wrbková

Created: 21. 11. 2022
Category:  News
Entered by:  Administrator
Department: 9920 - Public Relations