Plastic pollution is the downside to celebrations

Ten million tiny pieces of plastic are estimated to be lying on the lawn in front of the North-West University (NWU) Law Faculty in Potchefstroom, and the soil in the Fanie du Toit Sports Grounds also has high levels of plastic pollution. This is the downside of the celebrations that are often held in these spaces, where glitter poppers and fireworks leave a lasting legacy – unpleasantly so.

In preparation for World Environment Day on 24 June, a team from the Research Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management conducted a study at three different sites to identify and quantify plastic particles and other pyrotechnics used in celebrations. The findings confirm the necessity for the NWU to reduce plastic pollution on its grounds and to respond in all earnest to the call made last year by Prof Bismark Tyobeka, vice-chancellor, to combat plastic pollution and minimise the use of plastic. 

The research team comprised three students, Raeesa Bhikhoo, Lohan Bredenhann and Francois Bothma, and supervisors Prof Henk Bouwman and Prof Carlos Bezuidenhout. They set out to obtain soil samples from sites where poppers are frequently used, to identify and quantify plastic particles in the soil, evaluate the effectiveness of cleaning up the plastic poppers, and identify and communicate possible interventions to reduce plastic pollution on the NWU grounds. 

Prof Bouwman says inadequate waste management practices in natural environments have caused plastic to become a frequent sight in cities. "Plastic is widely used for packaging and clothing, as well as for decorative purposes like confetti and glitter in ceremonial confetti poppers, and reflective plastic strips used in fireworks during sports events." 

Owing to the durability of plastic, it remains in the environment for a long time, negatively affecting the environment and the residing organisms – and potentially damaging human health.  

"Contact with and/or ingestion of plastic can cause a false sense of satiation, intestinal blockages, reproductive impairment and death in organisms,” Prof Bouwman says. “Both confetti/glitter poppers and fireworks are based on pyrotechnics, which also carries inherent health risks, such as eye damage, skin damage, and hearing damage.”  

What the study showed 

Sampling was conducted at three different sites on the Potchefstroom Campus at the NWU.  

"Two of the locations were chosen based on the usage of glitter poppers and fireworks during ceremonies and sporting events, with the third site in the NWU Botanical Gardens, a control site where poppers and fireworks are not used,” says Prof Bouwman. 

Six soil samples were taken per site using a core sampler. The soil samples were sifted using two layers of sieves, with the top mesh sieve size being 1,25 mm and the second mesh sieve size being 500 µm. Larger pieces of plastic were hand-picked from the soil. 

“The sifted soil from the steel 500 µm sieve was then separated using a density-separation technique, as plastic is normally lighter than water and floats. The pieces can then be collected and counted,” he says.

Density separation entails adding iodine salt to water. Iodine salt is heavy and makes the density of the solution heavier than that of water or most plastics. The soil is then stirred into the solution and left for the soil particles to settle out for 24 hours. The plastic floats to the top layer. The top layer containing the plastic particles is then filtered through steel sieves of 25 µm mesh.

The particles were then counted under a microscope, enabling the students to estimate that the lawn in front of the Law Faculty contained approximately 10 million small pieces of plastic. Plastic particles were also present on the sports grounds, as well as in run-off areas, from where they will enter streams, rivers, stormwater pipes and groundwater. The soil from the Botanical Garden contained far fewer plastic particles. 

The study showed the presence of enormous amounts of plastic in the soil, providing a baseline for future research and interventions to reduce plastic pollution on the NWU grounds. The use of confetti poppers and fireworks in celebrations has been normalised, but it is still a form of littering. Other bio-friendly alternatives are possible, such as dried flower petals, paper confetti, or digital effects, although these also have their own problems.

The study recommends interventions to reduce plastic pollution on the NWU grounds, such as promoting the use of bio-friendly alternatives, implementing proper waste management practices, and raising awareness among students and staff. 

Students Lohan Bredenhann, Raeesa Bhikhoo, and Francois Bothma was part of the research team.

Submitted on Tue, 04/09/2024 - 09:38