PhD Student Looks to Re-Design Marine Plastic Pollution

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By Anna Cocks

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 10 of VARSITY News.




Takunda Chitaka, a UCT PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering, has recently won the Excellence in Academia PETCO Award for her research in marine plastic pollution surrounding Cape Town’s coastline.  Her research has made herone of ten scientists to receive the Blue Charter fellowship from The Association of Commonwealth Universities.


Takunda grew up in Mutare, Zimbabwe, where she completed her O-Levels at Hillcrest College. She then chose to come to UCT for her undergrad with much encouragement from her father. She laughs as she explains, “My dad really loves Cape Town, and so he told me to go to UCT so he could come visit this city.” After finishing her ChemEng undergrad at the end of 2013, Takunda went on to do her masters in Sustainable Mineral Resource Development, focusing on decision making around the sustainable use and disposal of iron and steel scrap metal. She completed her masters at the end of 2015 and began her PhD the very next year.


Her PhD thesis takes an engineering approach to plastic marine pollution using a ‘lifecycle management’ lens. “This concept of lifecycle management looks at the entire sustainability of a product from ‘cradle to grave’, from material to waste.”  Takunda focused on monitoring what kind of plastics were washing up onto the various beaches of Cape Town, and from there see if those products could be re-designed so they never become litter.
What clarified that her research was of importance was a report released by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation in 2017, suggesting that we should “re-design items that are prone to littering”.


She based her research on empirical evidence, monitoring the type and the amount of litter that washed up onto five of Cape Town’s beaches (Hout Bay, Milnerton, Muizenberg, Paarden Island and Wolfgat Nature Reserve). She monitored each beach over five to ten days during two periods: the winter and spring of 2017 and the summer of 2018 and 2019.


Takunda found that the rate of litter accumulation on each beach varied drastically. She found 36 pieces of plastic litter per day on Muizenberg Beach, while she found close to 3000 pieces on Paarden Eiland Beach.  She also discovered that the composition of litter had changed. The dreaded plastic bags that everyone condemned 20 years ago were no longer the main plastic pollutant but straws, earbuds, polystyrene cups and beverage bottle lids were. She discovered that very few of the items she picked up were common, locally recyclable items.



From her results she hopes to bridge the gap between academics and those on the ground by working with the recycling industry, manufacturers and other links in the network to find solutions to reduce marine plastic pollution. She describes her research as “research that has an impact in real time.” She believes in making herself accessible as an academic, “We hear from all the science but if people aren’t on board than we are wasting our time.”


She plans to finish her PhD at the beginning of next year but for her the future involves continuing in academia. With regard to future research around this topic she states, “It’s done in the sense of my PhD but the project is not done. There is still much work to be done.”


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