World Environment Day: How microplastics research can transform how we produce fibres
It’s World Environment Day and this year millions of people around the world are coming together to #beatplasticpollution. Today, we speak to Associate Professor Alessandra Sutti, who hopes her research will not only increase awareness about microplastics but enable communities to change behaviours that contribute to the global microplastics problem.
Area of expertise: Materials Science
Joined IFM: 2008
- Developed technique to manufacture superfine short fibres
- Co-created and Initiated a world-wide, school-friendly, and scientifically robust, Microplastics Monitoring Protocol Trial – 2019-present (>16 countries, >500 teachers, >10,000 students)
- Established research team in 2012.
Describe the work you do in the microplastics space.
Microplastics are objects of human origin, of a size between 5 mm and 1 micron, and so small that we often don’t see them around us. They are everywhere: air, water, soil and potentially, plants and animals. Microplastics include glitter, tyre rubber, textile fibres and coatings that you may find on textiles.
My team and I at IFM work with textile and advanced manufacturing industries to increase their sustainability. We understand how materials produce microplastics and work on ways to prevent that from happening.
We help industry not generate microplastics. We replace non-degradable materials with degradable and sustainably sourced ones.
The key to our work is understanding how microplastics are released and where they go in the environment.
This is where I was drawn to bring my work with me to the beach, on holiday, snorkelling.
I was interested to see what was the extent microplastics pollution in the waters I was snorkelling in.
Most of the microplastics pollution data available is at large scale. What about the small, local scale? What we found was astonishing. Very high levels of microplastics pollution.
This drew me alongside Stuart Robottom, a colleague from Deakin’s Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation, and collaborators from GLOBE Italy and Labter-CREA MN to develop a protocol that you could literally ‘take to the beach’, and that would be suitable for mid-level and high-schools and equally accurate and precise, to generate high-definition data on the local spread of microplastics in the environment. That was 2019.
Fast-forward to 2023, the protocol has been tested through the GLOBE Program network, in over 16 countries, by hundreds of teachers and thousands of students.
The impact has been increasing exponentially, with research articles and conference presentations by collaborators, science fairs, conferences, school-university partnerships, local investigations and council policy.
What led you to microplastics as a particular focus?
A love for the environment and a drive to make a difference. As researchers we are privileged with information and deep understanding of the impacts of what we do on the environment.
The community trusts us to communicate our findings, to increase their awareness and to enable those around us to change their behaviours to make the world a better place. Microplastics are often invisible – it’s my job to make them seen by as many as possible and to do something about this large problem.
Are there ways that people could reduce the problem of microplastics?
Microplastics pollution is pervasive and it might sometimes feel we have no control. However, there is a lot we can do! Microplastics are produced by the materials we use every day.
From our clothes to the tyres of our bicycles and cars. Have you ever looked at the lint that is collected in your clothes dryer or washing machine? What is that made of? Microfibres. So, there are simple things we can do, including not using our clothes dryer so much.
The main thing you can do is, therefore: think.
Is what you are doing going to generate microplastics? What can you do to prevent or minimise that?
Is there another area in environmental sustainability that you would like to explore?
Absolutely – I am not a ‘selective’ advocate for environmental sustainability!
Environmental sustainability requires a holistic approach. It’s a way of life (and work).
To make an impact, we need to understand the ‘environment’ as an ecosystem, with delicate balances.
Our work at IFM and internationally is aimed at increasing the amount of data available about our impact on the environment, at reducing that, and at building community awareness.
We are focussed on developing low carbon emissions and low water use processes. We are always asking ourselves whether we could do things differently and how would that benefit the environment and society more broadly.
To answer your question, it’s all of interest to us, from new materials to artificial intelligence approaches. It’s all equally important.
For example, our work with Deakin’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute has allowed us to accelerate the way we get to experimental results. This means that we need fewer experiments, fewer consumables, and less energy to achieve our targets.
Scale that to industry and you quickly see that the potential impact on the planet of bringing technologies together.
To learn more about Assoc. Prof. Alessandra Sutti or to get in contact, click here.