Student awarded for pollution research

UCT fourth year chemical engineering student, Takunda Chitaka.

A UCT chemical-engineering student believes her industry can help to find solutions to plastic pollution in the oceans.

Takunda Chitaka, a fourth- year student, was crowned one of the 2019 PET Recycling Company (PETCO) recycling champions for her research on the nature of the plastics found on Cape Town beaches, which was published in an international scientific journal this year.

Petco is a non-profit company that represents the South African PET plastic industry’s joint effort to self-regulate post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling.

The competition looks at people and organisations making strides in sustainability at grassroots level across the country.

Takunda, from Rosebank, was nominated by one of her professors.

In her work, she examined litter wash-up rates for five beaches and classified 36 000 items by weight into 372 distinguishable item types by doing a beach accumulation survey over a 24-hour period.

She said the number of items found varied from beach to beach with some having about 36 items a day and others as many as 3 000.

“It is important that we examine the information which is out there and to also be aware that there are a lot of variations in how these studies are conducted,” she said.

She also found that the composition of litter had changed over the years.

“If you think back to 10 or 20 years ago, everyone was freaking out over plastic bags and how they were viewed as the ‘devil’. If you thought of plastic pollution, you would always envision that bag, but I found very few plastic bags across all the beaches.”

Takunda said she believed in evidence-based decision making and added that academia had a responsibility to inform decision makers.

“All the stakeholders are valuable, no one is more important than the next and operate in a ‘web’ that can’t be pulled apart,” she said.

Takunda said it was an honour for her work to be recognised.

“I don’t believe that research needs to stay behind ivory wall towers or is simply meant for journals. For my work to be recognised by Petco means that they have seen my research and I have communicated with them.”

As part of her prize, Takunda will get to choose a recycling initiative of her choice, to contribute to. She said she was still looking for an initiative but wanted to support an organisation that needed it the most.

“This is a very tough industry to get into. I want to work with an organisation that is truly passionate about recycling and waste collecting and help empower and uplift them through this,” she said.

Takunda believes most people want to recycle, but there’s not enough facilities to meet that demand.

“It’s hard to recycle when there are no separation bins or waste facilities in your area. The complex I stay in does not have any facilities, so I take my waste to my sister,” she said.