UC Science Radio Season 2: Episode 3

Helena Ruffell: The dirt on plastic

We’re all familiar with marine plastic pollution, but what about our productive soils – are they becoming a hotbed of microplastics too?

PhD candidate Helena Ruffell gets out her trowel, tweezers and Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscope to shed some light on what’s happening in the ground. Here’s what she’s discovered so far.

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In this episode

00:57 My research is looking at if microplastics affect productive soil systems for my PhD.

01:34 I'm looking at microplastics, which are plastic particles smaller than 5 mm in size, and they're such a huge problem mainly because of their tiny size.

02:41 It's hard to go for a walk anywhere, even to a park, even down the street, without coming across a piece of plastic. I'm focusing on the ones that we actually can't see.

02:53 The focus on productive soil systems, of course, is because they are really important for us. Microplastics might affect plants, it might affect their growth, or it might affect the community of microorganisms which are so, so important for soil health.

03:39 (Plastic is) ideal for a range of products but that's the problem, it doesn't go away, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, into these microplastics.

05:13 Our green bins in Christchurch, they don't have those conditions. They're just designed to compost our food scraps. They can't handle plastic.

06:00 I found that doing a project on microplastics, it was really hard to not do anything about it.

06:24 The more that I learned, I really wanted to share that as well, I felt responsible for sharing what I learned and helping other people out.

10:24 Once you look at (the sample) through a microscope, generally there's heaps and heaps of plastic, which is kind of sad for the environment, but also kind of exciting for me to say "Oh yay I've managed to get something."

10:42 We kind of joke that from doing postgrad you end up with a lot of different life skills, and mine’s probably the ability to be a brain surgeon now from having such a steady hand with trying to pick out tiny, tiny pieces of plastic about 100 micrometres, which is just so small, with tweezers.

12:02 There's no point cleaning up the plastic after it's happened, we might as well turn it off at the source.

Read a transcript of the full interview.

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Meet our speakers

UC Science Radio S2E3 - Helena Ruffell - bio

Helena Ruffell

Helena Ruffell is a PhD student in Environmental Science at UC. Her research area is environmental contamination, specifically, the amount of microplastics that can be found in our soils – and the effects they might be having. A big believer in walking the talk, Helena is passionate about finding ways to reduce her own plastic waste and inspires others to do the same by sharing her ideas on Instagram.

“I’d love to see a reduction in the amount of plastic we use daily. There's nothing easy about cleaning up microplastics once they’re out there. We need to turn them off at the source.”

Read more: Helena's UC journey | Follow Helena on her sustainability Instagram

Molly Magid

Molly Magid

Molly Magid is an MSc student at UC. A recent graduate of Brown University, Molly is working on research in conservation genomics with Associate Professor Tammy Steeves from the School of Biological Sciences. Molly is passionate about finding ways to communicate science to the public in a clear, novel, and engaging ways. Most recently, Molly worked as the lead student producer on the podcast Possibly, which answers listener's questions about sustainability using relevant science research.