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Meet the Young Scientists tackling microplastic pollution on Irish farms

Their projects were part of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition.

Amelie Moore from St Gerard's, Wicklow
Amelie Moore from St Gerard's, Wicklow
Image: TheJournal.ie/Andrew Roberts

OVER 500 PROJECTS were on display at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition this week.

We talked to some students taking an interest in microplastics and their impact on Irish farms.

Last year saw the government begin drafting a bill to ban the sale, manufacture, import and export of products containing plastic microbeads, a type of microplastic.

Microplastics are small, barely visible pieces of plastic debris or waste. They’re usually so small that they can be ingested by animals or marine life and can accumulate in the digestive system resulting in intestinal blockages, starvation and malnutrition.

“If it can do that to an animal, what can it do to us,” said Macroom student Maria Cronin whose display stand ‘Do Farms in Ireland Contain Microplastics?’ aimed to highlight the issue.

The 14-year-old says she’s concerned that Irish farmers don’t know enough about the issue.

Last year, researchers from NUI Galway found almost three quarters of 233 deep water fish from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean had ingested plastic particles. 

Coming from a family of farmers, Cronin said most people think that microplastic and plastic waste is an issue that impacts the ocean and not streams or sources of water on farmland.

IMG_5640 Maria Cronin, St Mary's, Cork Source: TheJournal.ie/Andrew Roberts

She decided to look at two different farms and examine meal and water samples to test for the presence of microplastics. 

Every week over the month of November she collected samples and filtered them out using a pump. Then, using a microscope and a pair of tweezers, she tested the samples to determine if what was left was a microplastic.

From all the water samples she collected she found all had a presence of some kind of microplastic. The meal rations on both farms showed microplastics cropping up every one to two samples.

Though a small sample size, she came to the exhibition in the hopes of getting the word out to farmers around Ireland of how these plastics could potentially impact on Ireland’s food chain.

Conducting a survey with 300 farmers in her area, she said 80% didn’t know what a microplastic was while 75% didn’t have water filtration systems on place on their farms that could potentially assist in filtering out plastics.

In June 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report that found exposure to microplastics in drinking water and food prepared with contaminated water posed a risk to the health of the population and to wildlife.

A risk to Irish farms

Amelie Moore (13) from St Gerard’s School in Co Wicklow – who was also tackling microplastics at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition – said farming plastics can also impact livestock and on soil.

“I wanted to determine if plastics were breaking down in the field into microplastics,” she says. 

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Her project looked at plastics usually found on Irish farms like silage wraps and netting.

“Farming plastics are a vital part of farming business,” her project says. “But these can easily get mixed up into farmyard manure.”

She said these plastics can sometimes be harvested along with grass and make their way into feed for livestock.

Using an acidic water and vinegar mix, Moore created an experiment that simulated the movement and environment inside of a cow’s stomach to see how it would break down plastics. 

IMG_5722 Amelie Moore's samples from her project investigating microplastics on Irish farms. Source: TheJournal.ie/Andrew Roberts

From her second control sample she found that signs of plastics were detected and wouldn’t pass through a cow’s system properly. 

“I think that the results clearly show that we need to be concerned about plastics on our farms,” Moore said.

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